Your Voice Matters and You’re Not Allowed to Go Away: Advice from the Creators of Super Zee
The Women Behind Super Zee, left to right: Gillian Müller, Farah Merani, Nathalie Younglai. Image credit: Leilah Dhoré
Nathalie Younglai, Farah Merani and Gillian Müller are multi-talented media makers committed to changing the industry. Together, they are three-fourths of the producing team behind the queer Black superhero comedy Super Zee. (The fourth, Jay Vaidya, was out making the next ground-breaking project at the time of our interview.)
In the first part of our conversation, we talked about the making of Super Zee and its all-POC crew. Here, they share insight about their careers, self-doubt and why you should ignore what people say about how to make it in showbiz.
On the set of Super Zee. Image: Leilah Dhoré
SHAMELESS: You all have amazing, established careers in the media industry. Could you share some advice for Shameless readers who might be thinking about going into media?
Gillian Müller: It’s something I’ve been reflecting on quite a lot lately, because one of the joys of this time in the world is that I really honestly feel—especially with what Farah, Jay and Nathalie have done with Super Zee—is that there’s actually a sense of mentorship going on in the industry that has never existed in my lifetime. I went to film school out of high school. I started working in the business when I was fifteen years old. I was just a super-nerd obsessed with the movies. And no one has ever given me a handout. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities, but mentorship is hard to come by, and right now there’s a group of Gen Xers who I think got looked over, who are reaching out to millennials and beyond saying “it’s supposed to be this hard.”
You have to stick with it and it matters. Your voice matters and you’re not allowed to go away. Because our generation, they started to go away. I was in a class of fifty. There were fifteen women. There were four of us that were POC and two of us who graduated. So, that’s how it gets shredded down. And those statistics are fairly across the board.
You might not get family support. My family’s West Indian and I got a lot of, “being creative is ‘lazy man’s work.’” I was just stubborn. Like “no, this is the only thing that I want to do.”
People will feed you all sorts of stories. About how to make it, you know, what’s the best time of the day to write. That’s their business. That’s their stuff. So a lot of advice that I give up-and-coming people is that you just gotta do you. And tell your truth.
Farah and Nathalie on set. Image: Leilah Dhoré
Nathalie Younglai: Something that I’m seeing that’s changing in the industry is that there’s a lot more awareness of trans representation. Which is, I think, pretty amazing. So, I guess I would just want your readers to know that there are people who are looking out for you. And who want to see trans representation both on screen and off screen. And it is something that is in the consciousness.
GM: Yeah. It’s amazing that the time has come. And there’s a cultural shift going on that is saying: if you’re gonna do this, you’ve gotta do it right. You can’t do it half-ass. You can’t do it because you read something about it.
Not to fall into a cultural appropriation hole, but, there’s a difference between being able to use your imagination to create a story, and stealing somebody else’s story. It’s a very fine line that people have to walk. And it’s important that we do. Because if you look at everything that happened over the last hundred years in the media, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, that has perpetuated stereotypes, that has made people lose their lives. So we have a responsibility as creative people to be as authentic as possible, to do it right. Tell the right story.
Farah Merani: So many of my peers, we’ve had this conversation about how narrow-minded so much of the content that comes out of Canada is, in terms of diversity, in terms of storytelling, in terms of risk-taking with stories.
I would say: don’t think of Canada as your audience. People in other parts of the world turn on their computers and watch shows online. That’s where the audiences are. And that’s where our stories are of interest, when we are telling them from a place of authenticity.
SHAMELESS: We often look for advice in success stories. But Gillian, I love this piece you wrote for aspiring media-makers, where you tell us to pay attention to the “dark parts” of peoples’ stories—to learn from their challenges, not just the fairytales. What are the dark parts of your stories?
FM: I would say that getting over self-doubt is one of the hardest and most long-standing demons. And I’m not sure if it ever really goes away. It takes a lot of work to recognize where that voice of doubt originally came from, originally planted itself in you, and then when it comes up for you and what you can do in a healthy way to quieten that voice.
I saw something today and it blew my mind: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is the thief of joy! If we fall into that toxic cycle of constantly comparing ourselves to other people—specifically on social media platforms, because it’s so readily available—then we are disconnecting ourselves from the inherent joy in which we live and exist and that is all around us.
GM: I agree with that whole-heartedly. And part of the way that you can battle it is through community.
FM: Community, one hundred percent.
GM: Yep, and that’s something that I think Super Zee was very successful at: building community, maintaining community, starting a conversation that could foster community.
On the set of Super Zee. Left to right: Winston Lewis, Fatima Camara, Carine Zahner, Nathalie Younglai, Gayle Ye and Gillian Müller. Image: Leilah Dhoré
NY: I think, there will always be someone who is above you, or more advanced than you, and always someone who is not as advanced as you. And I think for me the way to kind of mitigate all those self-doubts and the jealousy that you do feel when you see other people moving forward, or—there’s a lot of things that you can get angry about, feel resentful about, depending on where you’re at. For me, a way to mitigate that is to turn around and be like “what can I do? What is my sphere of influence that I can do to help other people kind of make their way into the industry too?”
Gill, you were talking about kind of being the wall for someone to lean on, and I think a lot of times, that’s all that’s needed. Just that extra bit, of someone saying to you, “you can do it, I’m here for you.” And that’ll get you over that old hump. I think that’s kind of what’s missing right now, is that idea of doing that outreach rather than trying to climb up by pushing other people down.
GM: You said it magically right there. We are taught in this industry that the only way you can climb is to step on the bodies. And that’s not true. The way you climb is by, you know—I don’t know anything about rock climbing, but, [miming] you get somebody and they put the thing in, and then the other person…Insert rock-climbing metaphor! [laughter] You know what I mean, right? We pull each other up.
Nathalie with actress Sedina Fiati (left), aka Super Zee. Image: Leilah Dhoré
SHAMELESS: Is there a shift that could happen in the industry to help create that dynamic and build community among Canadian creators?
GM: I think that the truly emotional shift is that it takes a huge village to make media, and it’s important to remember that. Twelve hours [on set] is twelve hours—it sucks. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the director, or, you know, the craft person.
NY: And that shift is also a change in who gets to make the decisions. You know, who’s at the top? What are the stories that they’re greenlighting? What are the production teams that they’re getting behind? Who gets to decide? It’s important.
FM: Which is why the internet is so exciting to be a part of. Because so much of it is outside of the realm of those gatekeepers. Yeah there’s a lot of static, and it takes a lot of work to break through the noise, but I am a firm believer—and this might be me being idealistic and rose-tinged in my perspective of the world—but I really do believe that quality supersedes all else. And that eventually, if you keep making stuff that is of high quality, and you’re consistent in that output, it will get seen. And you will break through the noise.
Also, just to give a little note on Super Zee’s audience here. We are very conscious of the fact that queer nerd audiences on the web are devoted and loyal fans. And that’s in large part due to the fact that it’s the one space they are able to see themselves. And there’s something so meaningful about creating a show like this and knowing all the while that there are groups of people who are going to connect with this on a very personal level, because it speaks directly to them. That is a huge, huge element to why we’re doing this and why we want to see it go forward in as large a capacity as possible.
SHAMELESS: Do you have advice specifically for young people who might be looking for mentors?
FM: Come to a Women On Screen event! Truly, I think one of the best ways of finding a mentor is joining organizations, or attending programs, participating in programs, really exploring opportunities where one can connect and learn, in the experience itself, and then follow up with additional interaction. Oh! And the other thing is, just ask. Ask!
NY: I think one of the keys, in terms of asking for mentorship, is that there are parameters included in that ask. With Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in TV and Film (BIPOC TV and Film), we just lined up twenty-one mentorships with writers of colour—but we were very clear on: it’s a one-script read and a coffee date. Because I think sometimes people will approach people that are quite high up and be like “be my mentor” and they’re like “whoooaa, how much time do I have?” I think asking for a coffee—everything is to establish a relationship, and to establish a connection. So I think there’s also a shift in thinking about what a mentorship is. Somebody can become your mentor along the way. That’s a lot easier to build, rather than coming up to a total stranger and asking them to be your mentor.
GM: One of the pieces of advice that I just gave Nathalie, actually, was to network with your peers. And one of the iterations of that, is that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were best friends in university. They just helped each other, helped each other, helped each other, and now look at who they are. You’re not always chasing the person on top. Sometimes you have to chase the person that you are the same age or same level as. And try to rise all the boats with the tide.
Farah and Gillian on the Super Zee set. Image: Leilah Dhoré
FM: I was gonna say that.
NY: Yeah? Like, boats and tide? Were you gonna say that?
FM: Well, when you rise, I rise with you. It’s the same notion as the boats rising together. That’s super important advice: surround yourself with the people you aspire to be like. And I don’t mean that in the sense of, go out and find a—you know, CEO type or a hotshot filmmaker type—yeah, those are great, but we are reflections of the five people we spend the most time with.
GM: Uh-oh. [laughter]
FM: It’s true though! We absorb from other people. And in this industry, which is so hugely collaborative, if you do not have people around you who you trust, who you believe in, and who believe in you—and with whom you have a shared language of what you want to create—you’re constantly going to feel like you’re being let down or that you’re not getting to where you want to go or making what you want to make. Because the people around you are not supporting you in that. And it starts with the individual. It starts with you. You have to be conscious of who you let into your inner circle. You can’t just let anyone in.
GM: Very much. Toxicity, especially in a business like this, it spreads.
FM: It’s all about relationships, right?
The crew of Super Zee. Left to right: Natasha Patten (Makeup & Hair), AbuBaker “Baker” Al Bach (Assistant Makeup & Hair), Angelica Lisk-Hann (Stunts Coordinator), Jenny Lee (Script Supervisor), Nathalie and Farah. Image: Leilah Dhoré
SHAMELESS: What are each of you most proud of in your career?
GM: Not giving up.
NY: I was going to say surviving. Showing up.
MB: Here I thought you were going to name one of the awards you’ve won or organizations you’ve founded! And instead it’s like: no, just getting up in the morning. [Everyone laughs]
GM: I can tell you what I think Nathalie should be the most proud of.
[Nathalie laughs nervously]
GM: Nathalie, you should be very proud of BIPOC TV and Film. Really really really proud of it. That’s a—it’s a home for a lot of people. You started a safe place for people to have a conversation that didn’t exist before. You’re building community. I think that’s something that not a lot of people actively do. A lot of people say they’re gonna do something, and you did it. You inspired a group of people. You’re a mentor in the community. I think you should be super proud of that. And it’s because you show up. Every day.
NY: Thank you.
Nathalie Younglai is a Writer-Director whose credits span factual (Til Debt Do Us Part), children’s (The Magic Schoolbus: Rides Again) and primetime TV (Bellevue). She is the founder of BIPOC TV & FILM (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in TV and Film) and serves on the Writers’ Guild of Canada Diversity Committee.
Farah Merani is an actress, writer and producer whose credits include Shadowhunters, Private Eyes, Nikita and Covert Affairs. She is one of the co-founders of Women On Screen and co-chaired the Diversity Committee at ACTRA Toronto from 2014-2108.
Gillian Müller is a Screenwriter, Producer, and former resident of the Canadian Film Center’s Primetime TV program. Her credits include Travelers, X Company, and Night Owl which was selected for SXSW in 2018. Her blog is awesome.
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