“It’s inherent in our DNA that we make our sets look like the world and want to represent more of what we see in the world. I truly feel honored to be a part of that. I feel it in my heart that it’s the right thing to be doing.”-Annie Laks, SVP of Creative Content at Shondaland
This past weekend, I binged the newest season of Shondaland’s Bridgerton series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. A woman of color stars as Queen Charlotte. Some could say this was an interesting casting choice for the role of a British queen, as well as an interesting choice to have a sympathetic portrayal of her husband King George’e mental illness. But after doing my research, I found that this is an honest and more accurate portrayal of the real story (aside from the sexy romance, I’m guessing). In terms of representation, Queen Charlotte was of mixed race, and King George could be diagnosed today with Bipolar disorder (although at that time they couldn’t give it a name not knowing what we know now). What might have been thought of as madness was actually mania. As a person who has dealt with mental health struggles, I’m aware of these manic moments. For example, King George’s obsession with the planet Venus and farming distracted him from his royal duties, but it was Charlotte who could bring him down to earth because of her love for him.
A month ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Annie Laks, SVP of Creative Content at Shondaland. We talked about her journey coming into the industry and things she has learned along the way. Annie has a wealth of knowledge and insight that I feel is so important for our emerging filmmakers to learn about.
Something I took away from our conversation was the power of representation of what we see onscreen and behind the camera. As humans, we all hold within us authentic stories. Why not bring that authenticity to the screen? Annie Laks values these authentic stories, and the diverse voices that bring them. I’m very excited to share our conversation, and to continue following her work.
How did your upbringing in Chicago provide you with an understanding of and desire to enter the industry?
I loved growing up in Chicago and I always loved movies and TV shows. As a kid I loved escaping into movies, like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Adventures in Babysitting.” John Hughes at that time was an icon. He always had a little bit of magic in what he did. It made sense to me that “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” could actually happen if the Cubs were playing on the same day there was a parade. I loved the magic of seeing Chicago on the big screen. I just remember thinking like in “Adventures in Babysitting” if I had that babysitter Chris, I too could end up on the side of a building after a night with my parents out. So, I think growing up in Chicago and seeing it on screen really influenced me.
Can you talk about some of the projects that you worked on early on that catapulted you into the film world?
I started out at the University of Wisconsin, and it was the greatest four years of my life. Taking film classes and really looking at film and TV shows through a physical production model was interesting to me. In my senior year, I got into a screenwriting class. It was an upper-level class and you had to apply and submit a sample. It was the first time through intensive study in the class where I actually broke down a movie based on the script
, and what was in the scene. It blew my mind because it was just a totally different way of looking at content. That really, for me, was a big thing to unlock. I ultimately realized I didn’t want to be a screenwriter, but it did help shift me toward knowing that I actually wanted to work on these stories.
I read in your bio that you started out working with Jason Reitman on “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult”, and I love “Young Adult”. Diablo Cody is one of my favorite screenwriters. Can you talk about that experience?
After I started at Paramount Pictures, a month later we started production on “Up in the Air.” I just remember being given that script and I was blown away. I think Jason has an incredible point of view as a writer and a director. He has such strong intentionality and it started for him with the script. It was the most incredible first film to ever dream to work on.
And then I was lucky enough to work on his next film, “Young Adult.” One of the things that I loved about working with a filmmaker again is that you start to see the nuances of the shots they use, and how they frame different shots. Like, truly understanding what the filmmaker does when they are looking for performances and how they get characters there.I learned so much from having a repeat experience with a filmmaker, much less such an incredible filmmaker like Jason Reitman. Those were incredible movies to work on.
What brought you to Shondaland?
Honestly, Alison Eakle is an old friend, and she is the one who brought me in. I’ve been here about four years, which is wild and wonderful, and it’s gone very quickly.
I’d love to talk more about your role as a SVP for Creative Content at Shondaland and your support of diverse representation on screen. What Bridgerton is doing for the period drama I’ve never seen before, and it’s exciting!
I feel very fortunate to be here. I love everything that we’re doing and what we stand for at Shondaland. It’s inherent in our DNA that we make our sets look like the world and want to represent more of what we see in the world. I truly feel honored to be a part of that. I feel it in my heart that it’s the right thing to be doing.
Shondaland is making such an impact in the industry. What is it that you specifically do there?
I do a lot of different things. It’s everything from looking for materials of what we’re going to do next, meeting writers and directors and reading a lot of scripts and articles to find the next project. That’s one part of my job. And the second part is helping oversee the projects we are making, whether that’s Bridgerton or Grey’s Anatomy or Station 19. And that is one of the things about my job that I love. I get to wear many different hats throughout the day. I’m always jumping back and forth between projects.
And I’m really excited about what we’re cooking up. Coming from movies, I’m always thinking about what can be a first movie for us, or what is it that we’re going to do next. What’s the next story to tell?
What advice would you have for emerging filmmakers who are trying to get their work to the right people?
I think about this a lot. It is so important to me. And I think, quite frankly, people don’t realize the impact they can have. I was at Paramount Pictures for nine years, and every Friday in our staff meeting, we did something called “YouTube Friday.” It was every executive at that company from the president on down looking for YouTube videos, and showing our favorite videos of the week in our Friday staff meeting. Here’s a short, here’s a music video, here’s something that made us laugh, here’s something that made us cry. Whatever it was, you had five minutes–in fact, you probably had thirty seconds or less to grab your boss. The videos needed to have that thing that would grab someone and show them something interesting. One of the videos that we watched was the Daniels’ music video, “Turn Down for What.”
All that I’m saying is that the impact is there to be made. There is a place for people to be creative, and do something different. My advice would be never let anything limit you, except for your imagination. Because the truth is that we need you, and you are the future. Even though it’s a hard barrier for entry, we now have iPhones, and we can shoot anything with them. It is your creativity that drives it.
An example of how creativity can pay off is when I was at Paramount Pictures, my colleagues bought “Paranormal Activity.” They made that movie for $11,000 and it grossed, as a franchise, over a billion dollars. That movie did more for Paramount than so many other projects.
I think quite often it feels like there is a huge chasm between the great creativity of a new filmmaker and a huge studio movie. And yet, you go back to “YouTube Friday” when we found all of those videos that sparked so many projects. I think my advice for emerging filmmakers would be to keep making content, and also to keep in mind “the audience” by trying to grab people right away.
Sometimes people get lost in the weeds. My advice to these filmmakers would be to encourage them to do more, to do it quickly, and to really focus on what it is they are making. Because a short film should be a short film. The truth is, as beautiful as your 20-minute short is, people in the industry don’t have 20 minutes, but they have two minutes. I’m not putting down the creativity or the power of what a 20-minute short could be, but I’m saying there is also the reality of getting people’s attention.