Alumni in Features | Stephanie Zari & Zebra Girl

By: Laura Huie

 

Stephanie Zari was a Semifinalist in Shore Scripts’ 2016 Feature Contest with her script In Our Blood. In 2021, she co-wrote and directed the feature film Zebra Girl which was produced by 19th Street Productions and distributed by Bohemian Media. The film stars Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey, Black Mirror, Weekend), Jade Anouka (Cleaning Up, His Dark Materials), and Sarah Roy (Glue).

 

 

Here, Stephanie shares her writing journey thus far, the development and directing process for Zebra Girl, and her advice for aspiring screenwriters.

 

“Being a semi-finalist of Shore Scripts feature competition really aided my project in further attracting a great Producer as well as getting on various filmmaking labs. It’s since become and huge resource for the screenwriting community and I can’t recommend it enough!” – Stephanie Zari

 

The Beginning

 

Stephanie’s journey began in the vibrant acting scene of Toronto, where an immersion in studying acting provided a deep understanding of the nuances of scripts, character analysis, and the structure of storytelling. However, the desire to write and tell her own stories propelled her to write short scripts. From there, she felt compelled to begin exploring the feature films as a director and writer.

 

“Embarking on the journey from crafting short films to diving into the vast realms of feature films as director and writer can be as daunting as it is thrilling.”

 

Taking screenwriting courses from John Truby, attending part-time film school, and participating in masterclasses were key steps in Stephanie’s career development. Most of these educational opportunities were pursued before the prevalence of online learning, emphasizing the importance of in-person courses for networking.

 

“Doing courses in person was key at the time for me to really build my network and I would encourage this as much as possible where we live in a world now so easy to stay glued to every online class and YouTube educational video — even if it’s your local am-dram!”

 

Throughout her career in the entertainment industry, Stephanie has found a unique rhythm within the universal challenge of getting projects off the ground. A central theme in her 20-year journey has been the power of collaboration and finding the right partnerships. Whether it involves writing solo, co-writing, co-producing, or engaging in the creative process with other industry professionals like script consultants, forging the right alliances has been crucial.

 

“It’s not just about crafting stories; it’s about crafting stories together, recognizing the symbiotic relationship that breathes life into our scripts. Because even if you write ‘alone’, eventually someone you trust will need to read it, and finding that person or tribe is key.”

 

 

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Developing and Directing Zebra Girl

 

Zebra Girl marked Stephanie’s feature directorial debut, a project she also co-produced and for which she developed the screen story, adapted from the critically acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival one-woman show Catherine & Anita performed by Sarah Roy.

 

The project’s inception came about when Roy, inspired by Cush Jumbo’s one-woman show, decided to create her own solo performance with New York playwright Derek Ahonen. The show’s success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival led to the decision to adapt it for the screen, with Ahonen drafting the initial screenplay. Seeking a director who could bring a unique female perspective, Roy chose Stephanie, and together they undertook the complex task of translating the play into a film through a distinctly female lens.

 

“As a filmmaker and abuse survivor, the story resonated with me deeply and we boldly, yet carefully set out to balance dark themes with comedic elements, addressing sensitive subject matter with respect and thorough research, speaking with psychologists and reading memoirs.

 

The non-linear structure of the script was a challenge that we unraveled and put back together several times, trying to make sense of a fragmented mind and how best to represent that on screen as we explored the life of a woman who stabs her husband in the head at the beginning of the story. We aimed to push the boundaries on mental health representation on screen, unapologetically and through a female lens, challenging stereotypes that we knew would potentially polarize viewers and critics – and boy did it ever!

 

READ & DOWNLOAD THE SCRIPT FOR FREE: ZEBRA GIRL

 

 

Even having a test screening before the final cut, which had positive feedback, could not have prepared us for how divisive a reaction the film would generate. Ultimately, the hope with Zebra Girl was to portray the main character through her eyes, and not just as a victim but as someone striving for a better life – even if she faces a tragic end.”

 

A notable challenge Stephanie faced as a director was visually representing the protagonist’s psychosis. She devised a unique “map” of camera techniques and a color palette that reflected the character’s personality and struggles, whimsically dubbed ‘Disney gone wrong.’ Working closely with cinematographer Catherine Derry, they fine-tuned these visual concepts to underscore the film’s distinctive genre.

 

Stephanie also talked about the importance of the camaraderie and respect between the cast and crew on set:

 

“Working on such heavy subject matter can take a psychological toll, so the support of a tight-knit crew, supportive cast, and a sense of trust and camaraderie on set were crucial. As Sarah and I were making our first feature film together (as were many of the crew), we listened to each others’ needs and suggestions and were fortunate to navigate some of the issues and cleverly stretch the budget to shoot a five-day workweek for five weeks, for better production pacing.”

 

The film, starring Sarah Roy, Tom Cullen, and Jade Anouka, premiered in UK cinemas in May 2021 and is now globally available on major streaming platforms. It received a nomination for Best Thriller at the UK 2022 National Film Awards and has secured several indie awards.

 

 

 

 

Advice on Pitching, The Power of Personal Storytelling, & Perseverance


When it comes to pitching, Stephanie has learned that it’s not solely about presenting a compelling narrative; it’s equally about showcasing the person behind the story. In those nerve-wracking pitch meetings, she finds solace in a well-known performer’s trick—stepping into her “circle of confidence,” and letting authenticity and passion shine through.

 

“Executives and producers aren’t just seeking a great story; they’re seeking a storyteller with a unique voice and vision. So, I make it personal. I make it about not just the plot but the individuality I bring to the table, how the story resonates with me, and why. This approach creates a pitch that’s not easily forgotten – one that resonates beyond the logline.”

 

She also emphasized the importance of connection, noting that executives and producers are just as eager to discover the next great story and are hopeful it could be yours. If you can connect with producers and executives on a human level and show your true self, then even if they don’t collaborate with you on the project you initially pitched, their door may be open to read your next one.

 

In the ever-evolving landscape of the film industry, she recognizes one constant: the enduring appeal of personal storytelling. She has come to realize that crafting a feature script with a real chance of being made involves tapping into her own experiences, making the story uniquely hers. Writing from a personal perspective enables a deeper exploration of themes that resonate on a universal level.

 

“While the industry may shift like sand, the authenticity of a genuinely human story remains a beacon – in whatever genre you’re writing in. So, I write stories that feel personal and authentic. I know that even if it doesn’t get made, I wrote it because it connected with me on a deep level and normally I learn something about myself and grow as a person with each one that I’ve written and kept honing my voice.”

 

And when it comes to perseverance, Stephanie says that the unpredictable course of filmmaking is rarely a straight path. It involves facing setbacks, adapting to changes, and staying true to the vision she holds for the stories she wants to tell, all while remaining nimble and open to collaboration – no small feat.

 

“Making films is like being on a battlefield and you need to be in it for the long haul as it can get very bloody. You need a willingness to persist in the ever-changing landscape with a big dollop of resilience to keep on your creative journey.”

 

 

Beyond Zebra Girl


Since Zebra Girl, Stephanie has created, executive produced, and directed an interactive comedy horror feature film tailored for TikTok, which was commissioned by the mobile storytelling game app Whatifi and written by Abigail Blackmore. She has also taken the helm of the beloved UK children’s TV show The Dumping Ground.

 

Currently, she is developing three comedy projects under her banner, Forge Films, collaborating with both established and emerging UK female writers. These projects include an absurdist existential comedy horror; an off-beat body swap romantic comedy; and an adaptation of the book “How to Create the Perfect Wife” by acclaimed historian and journalist Wendy Moore, which recounts the remarkable true story that inspired Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”

 

“As a director, I want to craft stories that both entertain and resonate on a deep, introspective level. I’m interested in working and collaborating with like-minded writers with the goal of shattering conventional norms and championing underrepresented stories. As Barbie showed us loud and clear last year – this is what we’re made for! – hopefully, the studios and execs really start to listen.”

 

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Laura Huie is a writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of the screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.

 

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