Juliana Roth and I spoke on the phone in February 2019 about her first feature film currently in development, “What We Know.” The film is based on “Middlebrook,” an educational web series Roth wrote that covers the aftermath of sexual assault on a college campus. Her script for “What We Know” was a semifinalist in the 2019 Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition and was featured in the 2019 SR Socially Relevant Film Festival at Cinema Village.
What fascinated me about the web series and Roth’s writing is that she explores all the facets of the people involved: the assaulted, the abuser, the teachers, the friends, and the parents. She humanizes their stories in a way that is real and visually stunning with help from her “What We Know” team: DP Azure Rouet McBride, leading actress Carly Van Liere, and producer Prasad. I’m excited to see “What We Know” upon completion and release. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
JULIANA ROTH: I grew up in Nyack, New York, a suburb of New York City, like twenty miles north. My whole family loves movies, and the community in our town always supported local film. There were also some local filmmakers who were very present in our community who I interacted with early on: Nancy Savoca and her husband Richard Guay and their daughter Martina. I never thought that’s what I want to do. I just want to write, but I love movies and television so much and have come to realize that involving myself in production would help me shepherd the stories I want to tell.
MARTIN: Where did you go to college?
ROTH: I got a scholarship to the University of Michigan where I was in the creative writing and environmental science programs while taking screenwriting and film courses on the side. They have a very rigorous writing and film program there which fostered me in my fluency with screenwriting and storytelling in general.
MARTIN: What drew you to writing?
ROTH: I first thought I wanted to act, then I got interested in storytelling in general. My parents were writers and I tried really hard to distinguish myself from them by being in the arts in a different way, but I was always writing in secret. After performing in a few small theater productions at Michigan, I tried taking a film production class and was just really intimidated. A lot of people had been in the film program for a while and seemed to already know each other and everything about production. I ended up dropping the production class and taking screenwriting instead. That was a better way in for me simply because I just felt more confident and I love language. So, I took two semesters of screenwriting with the same professor, and he ended up wanting to produce the script that I wrote, which is also sort of the origin story of “What We Know.” That was in 2014. It’s been a long journey to fully realize the story, but we produced some scenes when I’d tried the feature script as a web series.
“WHAT WE KNOW”
MARTIN: I did watch a little bit of web series “Middlebrook,” and I thought it was really interesting. In terms of the story, what drew you to sexual assault awareness on campus?
ROTH: Being a woman in the world, my own assaults, and the predation I and many others experience on a daily basis that’s just become so normalized. Right when I started taking the feature writing course in 2014, the University of Michigan was being investigated for mishandling Title IX complaints. The student reporters were some of the first reporters to break the story in The Michigan Daily, I think even before the local papers. That was so inspiring to me.
I’ve always loved procedurals and stories about bureaucracies. So, it was also partly a timing thing. I wanted to learn more about what Title IX is, how it affected me and the lives of other students. At the time, there were so many stories coming out, and the next year “The Hunting Ground” (2015) was released and that documentary really blew the lid off of just how widespread the cover-up of sexual assault on college campuses really is. So, it was just obvious to me how powerful of a story studying the Title IX process could be and I felt it could be healing and empowering for me to tell it with other student filmmakers.
MARTIN: I liked that in the series, you looked at all different sides—the teachers, administration, and students that are involved. How did you put the story together?
ROTH: I always imagined the story as an ensemble. The feature I wrote in 2014 was told from multiple points of view so we would follow about six to eight different characters. Abbey is the main character, she is the main string, but you can’t talk about the culture of sexual assault without looking at who makes that culture. That does include the administrators and what their pressures are. What they do looks very evil or uncaring, but there’s also legal and bureaucratic limitations on them. They carry their own biases and their own beliefs about sexual assault that aren’t confronted, or they aren’t trained well enough. I’m also curious about the assailant and their friends. What facilitates their attitudes about what sex is and what consent is? It was really hard to write and empathize with the nasty and abusive part of a culture, but I think that doing so was the most important part of the writing process. It’s about allowing the ugliness to be seen as part of the story too without enveloping Abbey and her pain.
MARTIN: What is Abbey’s story?
ROTH: Abbey’s a college freshman and she has hopes to do development work. She wants to travel and has all of these ambitions about her career and love and personal growth. Within the first few months of being on campus, she’s raped, which is actually statistically shown to be one of the most likely times for a student to be assaulted: the first few months of their freshman year. It’s known as the “Red Zone,” and is a terribly sad finding. As you might expect, being assaulted stalls Abbey’s educational plans. She’s not someone who’s wealthy with a legal team behind her and her opportunity to just be a curious student is lost. She carries a lot of shame. Through her character, I try to humanize how sexual assault is an issue for guaranteeing equal access to education and I try to unpack some of her own privilege too.
Abbey has a falling out with her roommate so she withdraws into herself even further and her roommate doesn’t really understand why she is acting the way she is. They’re eighteen. Eventually, Abbey’s roommate encourages her to report to the police, and the police are not sensitive to her PTSD symptoms. And the process of going to court, and years of dealing with legal things, it really registers with her, and she decides not to report, which is what a lot of survivors choose. That’s the viewer I most hope to reach.
A lot of people see this kind of abuse simply as an interpersonal problem or college kids being drunk and rowdy. That’s reductive. In listening to the arguments people have over Title IX and what counts as assault or abuse, I feel like what’s often left out is just how draining having to devote time and emotional energy to seeking justice for what’s happened to your body is. Ultimately, being assaulted by another student is a discrimination issue that Title IX was designed to cover. Equal access to education also means the freedom to exist without feeling threatened in the classroom or dining hall. The systemic failures drive this story, echoing what we see in our larger culture, but our film’s core is the power of people with shared pain coming together as they fumble through it.
MARTIN: The actress who plays Abbey, what’s her story?
ROTH: Carly [Van Liere] I connected with when we were doing casting for the web series, and we ended up casting her as Abbey in the series. Her performance in the scenes we produced is incredibly powerful and I just really liked working with her, and now she is also helping with the producing side of the film while working professionally as an actress in the Bay Area. Carly’s exactly what you want in an actress. She’s a badass and already had an interest in this issue, but is still very curious and skeptical of how trauma narratives are traditionally represented. Anything she can do to deepen her performance, she does. I think she’s working her way through a stack of research texts and films at the moment. I’m just really excited to work with her and trust her with the role.
A RESOURCE FOR SCHOOLS AND HOSPITALS
MARTIN: Are some schools using your series to teach about Title IX?
ROTH: The clip that we have of Abbey telling her story to the Title IX tribunal was screened a few times at advocacy events in Michigan over the last four years. Somebody saw the scene and wanted to use it within the University of Michigan’s hospital systems to train first responders and hospital staff on how to work more compassionately with survivors of assault. Sometimes survivors behave in ways that seem strange or weird to a person who’s not well-trained. They might laugh involuntarily as they recount a painful detail or forget whole blocks of time.
I just believe humanizing the confusing symptoms that might present after an assault might do a great deal to shift the cultural myth that you can just “know” when someone is lying about when they’ve been assaulted or might have another agenda for coming forward, which again is super rare. [Jon] Krakauer shows this in his book [“Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town”]: a survivor might continue to hang out with their rapists or even get a ride home from them. That might be hard for some people to reconcile given the usual portrayal of a rapist being a stranger in an alley and not a lifelong friend or a handsome guy with a girlfriend. The rate of false reports is the same as for any other crime, but when those stories do come out, they get sensationalized.