Creator-Director Sophia Peer joins us on Close-Up Culture to chat about her comedy series, Who’s Annie?.
Can you tell us about Who’s Annie? and the inspiration for it?
Who’s Annie? is a scripted comedy series that is both about and starring Annie Pisapia, a New Yorker who began her acting career in her 50s. This is her second (or 9th) chance at life after abuse, addiction and incarceration. We are both aligned in taking all the suffering in our respective lives and turning it into cinema. Annie is a street smart, straight shooter with a wild past. She’s loud, funny, unpredictable, and larger than life, but most of all Annie is inspiring because nothing can take her down. Annie told me that she was using Craigslist as her agent and responding to every casting call no matter what age or gender the listing was requesting. This made me imagine Annie in all types of roles, some so absurd that I desperately wanted to see them on screen.
To give an example, I think the first scene co-writer Annie Sicherman (the behind the scenes Annie) and I wrote, which ultimately didn’t get used, was inspired by the rom-com format. It starred Annie as a young workaholic lawyer who was very pregnant and stuck in an elevator with her ex. The first scene we actually filmed with Annie was a life insurance commercial in which Annie plays a senior who wants to make sure she’s taking care of her loved one’s “from beyond the grave.” Annie’s presence in these tropey scenes was definitely funny, but what was more interesting was the way she drew attention to the ridiculousness of classic women’s on-camera roles.
Once Annie Pisapia agreed to star in this series, we would spend hours talking, and the more I learned about her life, the more I wanted to tell her story. The script shifted to include scenes in which Annie played her younger self in some version of one of her memories, or her present day featuring Annie playing the hapless background roles she was booking. Eventually this expanded to include Annie on the set of this very series, creating a meta show about the creation of Who’s Annie?.
At that point, I cast the brilliant actor Sofia Dobrushin to play me in this series. While working with Sofia, who was acting like some version of me, directing some version of Annie, we decided to peel back another layer and zoom out to include me directing Sofia to direct Annie. I loved that this showed three women from different generations and the mistakes they made along the way as they navigated the film industry, all representing themselves in a medium that rarely represents them.
As in the show, you did actually meet Annie Pisapia in a Burger King. What memories do you have of that fateful interaction?
Yes, Annie and I really met at a Burger King on Northern Boulevard in Queens, close to where we both grew up and where Annie currently lives. We both talk about the day we met as an almost spiritual encounter because it feels like the universe miraculously brought us together so we could change each other’s lives. We connected immediately and took a selfie wearing those cardboard crowns within minutes. We talked about our careers, goals, and families, and as the sun went down, Annie left to go play a small part in a music video that was going to shoot all night.
You have a background as a music video director, working with the likes of Paramore, The National and Interpol. Can you tell us about that background and how it informed your style for Who’s Annie?
Whatever my personal style is, when you’re making a music video, the look has to shift to suit the artist you’re making the video for. I learned a lot about how to take my concepts and adjust them for the musicians I was working with; Julien Baker’s music and presence is very different from The National’s. This helped train me to give scenes from varied genres their own individual look, while ensuring that my voice was consistent.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Ryan Cunningham on Who’s Annie?
I met Ryan at The Gotham’s pitch week and I showed her a few rough cuts of scenes from the pilot over coffee. Ryan is very direct, critical and quick to spot missing pieces or speed bumps. She was really helpful both on set and throughout the post process. She has a lot of experience to draw from in comedy and television which was imperative as this is my first pilot. Ryan is prolific, often working on many amazing projects at once, but she gave this series a lot of her time, filling in the many gaps from story structure to script supervising to doing my makeup before the premiere at Slamdance.
I remember when we filmed at my parents’ house in Flushing, Ryan needed a quiet place to take a call- I think it was with HBO- and I directed her to my childhood bedroom. It felt psychedelic to have this accomplished, talented woman doing business in what was one of my first “sets”; a tiny room with a yellow shag rug, and stacks of journals tucked away with my very first ideas for videos.
What was your greatest challenge making the show?
I’m not sure how to pick just one challenge but I suppose this process would’ve gone faster if I wasn’t self funding this. Sure, the pandemic didn’t help either, but ultimately what made all this possible was the support of all the extremely talented people who practically (or literally) donated their time to this series.
Co-writer Annie Sicherman, cinematographer Adam Uhl, producer Manon Carrié, production designer Erica Magrey, editor Matt Posey, and of course Annie herself and co-star Sofia Dobrushin, believed in this show from start to finish. A great deal of my friends contributed their time and resources, many of them actually playing small roles in the pilot. This encouraged me to work overtime to finance this very ambitious big swing.
And what has been the most rewarding part?
Going to Park City with Annie, putting her face front and center on a poster, and watching her be a film festival celebrity, was incredibly moving. I felt like I helped make Annie’s dream come true, showcasing her talent and putting her in the starring role she always wanted. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Annie hand out postcards for the premiere, pointing at her own image and saying: “This is me! Come watch my show.”
On a personal level, there is now something out there in the world that I’ve been tirelessly working on, that I feel represents what I can do best as a filmmaker. When I first met Annie I was at a major low point in my life and career, directing a thanksgiving themed nail art video after a really brutal break-up. This premiere, the team that joined me on the snowy mountain for Slamdance, and the positive feedback are extremely rewarding and validating. I’m filled with hope for what’s next.
What do you hope audiences at Slamdance and elsewhere take away from the series?
I want people to want more. We have so much to say and the pilot just offers a glimpse into who the characters are, and what the series is trying to communicate through them. The team is almost entirely female and/or queer, and I’m happy to have this episode represent us. Another element to all of this is that just like Annie, a lot of us have the odds stacked against us and I hope to inspire others to take risks, just like Annie inspired me to do when I first met her.
What are your hopes and ambitions for Who’s Annie?
I want to continue directing Annie, putting her in a wide array of leading roles via this series, showcasing what we’re both capable of. I want people to see what Annie has survived and endured and give hope to anyone who’s been ignored, undervalued or unseen. Although scripted, this series truly demonstrates both Annie’s life and the struggle of following through on a dream, no matter how messy or stressful.
Reaching a wide audience on a major streaming platform or network would give these struggles a much needed spotlight. When Annie saw the quippy logline for the series that puts her years of hardship upfront as a teaser, she suddenly got worried that it would make people judge her. I assured Annie that everyone loves a great redemption story and craves honesty, and that her hurdles to climb to where she is right now would be celebrated. I want to validate that statement and have the world love Annie as much as I do.
Title image by Matthew Spiegelman