Three episodes into Her Story, a new online series about love and dating in the trans and queer communities, I heard a line that resonated so strongly with me I had to stop, rewind and hear it again. Allie (played by Laura Zak) is explaining to Violet (played by Jen Richards) why an incident involving her high school newspaper changed her life forever. Her newspaper exposed a story of abuse in her school and led to the end of that behavior and real change. It was that moment that made her, “realize the power of a true story well told.”
I think a lot about stories, truth and vulnerability here at D*S, namely because they’re all issues that affect the way we feel in our day-to-day lives, and by sharing them, we’re able to create places that feel safe — places that feel like home. But I often think about how many people’s stories are left out of movies, music, television and publishing. These people are either not given the chance to tell their stories in their own voices, or their stories are deemed in some way too different to be relevant to the “mainstream.” As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I care deeply about hearing stories from all people who identify as LGBTQ+, but as a human being, I know that these stories are important not just within our own community, but the community at large. At the end of the Her Story series, Allie says, “Our great disservice is not just to those we’ve excluded, but to ourselves, for our world is less rich without their stories, their laughter, their voices.” Celebrating and embracing all of these stories and voices is what we believe in here at D*S, and today I’m so excited to talk with the executive producer of this incredible new series, Kate Fisher.
Kate, along with co-executive producer Eve Ensler, director Sydney Freeland and writers Jen Richards and Laura Zak, worked together with an amazing crew to create this series, which debuted last week online. Today, Kate took time out of her busy premier schedule to talk with us about how this series came to be, what filmmaking has taught her about life and work, and what we can all learn from people sharing their stories in their own voices. Read on to learn more and click here to watch all six episodes of Her Story online for free. xo, grace
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
Kate: I was always in love with film and filmmaking, and even as young as 5 or so my sister and I would make fake commercials and short films with my dad’s old VHS camcorder. It wasn’t until junior/senior high school, however, that I actually considered it a viable career option. As with most queer youth, adolescence hit me pretty hard and high school was a bit of a battleground for me emotionally; so I turned to film and television both as escapism and art, and really began to understand the power that good filmmaking and storytelling can have on a person (I used to joke that The X-Files saved my life, which in many ways is true). When I was 15, I started an internship at the Vermont State Film Commission where I worked for another two years, and when I was 16 and 17 I also took college classes in film production at Burlington College. By the time I graduated high school, I had enough of a sense of the industry to know that it was something that I wanted to be a part of, and the next 13 years were spent meandering towards that goal through training and working in theater, film, and event production and social activism and movement-building (with V-Day).
What inspired you to create Her Story?
Kate: The script was written by my longtime friend and current roommate Laura Zak, and activist/writer Jen Richards (also co-producers on the series). When I read it I fell in love with the story and was so drawn to how simply and beautifully it depicted the very real women that I was seeing in my own life. It created a world with so much heart and did so with a nuance that can only come from writing from a place of authenticity and experience. I read the script when I was in a place of transition myself, with regards to my career. I had just left V-Day, I had just started my own production company, and I could not think of a better project to dive into than one that was about me and my friends. So, I pitched Jen and Laura my ideas for production and where I saw this going and how I wanted to make it, and luckily they were into it. Once I came on board we were shooting just a few months later.
How did you go about choosing your cast and crew?
Kate: From the moment I came on board, there were two main things I wanted to accomplish with this series: I wanted to ensure that we could present it in full, for free (not behind a pay wall); and I wanted to use the series to prove that women and LGBTQ+ professionals in the entertainment industry are just as capable of creating high-quality content as their straight and cis (and often male) counterparts. We went into forming our team with that in mind and the end result was a cast and crew of about 80% female and/or LGBTQ+ identified professionals. We had a great casting director in Geralyn Flood who worked with us to meet our goals for those represented in front of the camera, and we were able to find crew through professional networks and contacts within the film and queer communities. While our goal was to employ as many female and LGBTQ+ crew as possible, we also were not going to hire someone solely for that reason — the quality of their work needed to be at a high level. Luckily, there are many excellent LGBTQ+ and female entertainment professionals out there if you take a second to look.
You used a crowd-funding platform to support this project — tell us about how that process went and what it taught you about community support? (Your reward ideas were so great!)
Kate: We decided to do crowd-funding for Her Story for two main reasons. First, obviously we needed funds to complete post production, but just as importantly we understood the power that can come from people being invested and connected to a project. This series was created by and for our communities and we wanted to give people the opportunity to be a part of that from the beginning. We hit our goal of $37k, which was raised by over 600 people donating from 22 countries. I think the largest donation we got through Indiegogo was $1k, so the majority was the result of smaller donations — $5 here, $20 there — from people that just wanted to support LGBTQ+ filmmaking. Now, five months later, Her Story has been released and that same community that we cultivated through the crowd-funding is with us, they’re spreading the word, they’re taking ownership and displaying pride in the work. To me, there really is no greater indication of the value of community support.
With regards to the perks, the motivation behind a lot of them was, quite frankly, to give something back while also not having to be weighed down by merchandise and order fulfillment. We really needed the majority of the funds that were coming in to go towards the filmmaking process and not towards designing, manufacturing, and shipping merchandise, so things like phone calls, tweets, videos we could all do ourselves without having to outsource product design or distribution. We’re still trying to fulfill all of the perks, and it’s a process, but we hope it’s worth it and a little more personal to people than just getting a branded coffee mug in the mail.
Tell us why it’s so important for stories about trans and queer people to be represented by trans and queer actors, writers and filmmakers?
Kate: We wanted to respect our communities and audience by presenting stories and characters that are real, and not manufactured by straight and/or cis people’s idea of what it is to be trans or queer. A filmmaker can have the best intentions, but if they’re telling an LGBTQ+ story without the voices, talent, and input of people who have lived that story then they are, at best, going to get things wrong — and at worst, put people’s lives in danger. There’s a lot to be said on the topic of casting trans roles in particular, and I greatly encourage readers to research the work and words of people like Zachary Drucker and our own Jen Richards on this issue.
With Her Story we endeavored to create a successful series without subscribing to that Hollywood notion that it’s okay to cast cis actors in trans roles — a system that actually puts trans women’s lives at risk — and so we wanted to model a different kind of filmmaking that emphasized authenticity. Something really incredible happens when you get diverse perspectives in all facets of storytelling, you start to see things in new ways — ways you had never considered before — and you create new ways of presenting situations and stories. We believed that LGBTQ+ representation in front of and behind the camera [was] vital to the quality and content of the work and would be the difference between our communities feeling seen, and them feeling misrepresented and silenced. Her Story was very much a collaboration between people who identified as at least one of the letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym and we were able to all bring our experiences to the table. The end result is, hopefully, a piece of storytelling that can resonate across our communities. That doesn’t just come down to writing and directing, it comes down to editing, the crew, the atmosphere on set, the ability to communicate and challenge each other and share our stories.
What was the most difficult part of bringing this film to life?
Kate: Doing justice to the script and characters, while maintaining a quality level that was up to our standards, all within the confines of a small budget was, on the most basic level, probably the most difficult aspect of creating this series. However, another challenge (which also proved to be extremely rewarding) was working with material that was very personal to a lot of people, and going through each day with the respect and integrity needed to ensure that everyone felt safe and held, while also getting what we needed to create a viable product.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in creating this film?
Kate: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how important it is to create a team specific to a project that can cary out a shared vision. Filmmaking is so collaborative that even just one or two people out of alignment can throw off an otherwise productive environment. Which is not to say there can’t be disagreements or challenging conversations, in fact those moments are vitally important to creating the best work possible; but everyone needs to be on the same path with the same end goal and to have the same level of respect for each other and the story. This was important to me going into this project, and now even more so that I’m on other side of it (and having benefited from having this kind of experience).
What do you want viewers to walk away feeling/thinking/doing after watching Her Story?
Kate: For people in the LGBTQ+ communities I would love for them to leave Her Story feeling seen, accurately represented, knowing that they belong to a larger community, and that love is possible. For those outside of our communities, my hope is that they can see these characters as real people and their feelings as universal human emotions. Her Story at its core is very simple, it’s a love story, and if people can leave the series simply having rooted for love, regardless of who it was between, then I’ll be happy.
What are you most proud of when it comes to the creation of Her Story?
Kate: I’m extremely proud of the quality of the piece, from writing, to directing, to cinematography, to acting, to editing, to music and sound and everything in between. Our team really put it all out there with limited resources and went the extra mile to make a quality product. But even more so, I am proud of the WAY in which Her Story was made, by the community, with support from people across the globe, with respect, and authenticity.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your career so far?
Kate: Her Story is the first project that I’ve produced through my company Speed of Joy Productions, so it is certainly something I am extremely proud of. Up until Her Story, my work had been under and in service to other organizations or companies, so being able to produce this series, construct this team, and do it all in a way that was personal and in alignment with how I want to operate was really special (and also of course terrifying). Having said that, some of my proudest moments are very much tied to my decade at V-Day and working closely with (Founder/Artistic Director) Eve Ensler and (Executive Director) Susan Celia Swan. How I operate Speed of Joy and the work that I hope to continue to make through my company is greatly informed by the work that I did at V-Day and the support and guidance I received from Eve and Susan. So, events that I was a part of during that time, be it V TO THE TENTH/Superlove at the Louisiana Superdome in 2008, or more recently Artistic Uprising at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC last February, will forever be milestone moments in my career.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Kate: There’s a Mary Oliver poem where she says, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” It’s a quote that I have above my desk, not out of heartsickness, but rather to remind myself that every major failure I’ve had or mistake I’ve made has ended up benefitting me in some way, whether it’s in making me realize what I am good at, or what not to do in the future.
When I was 17 I was so convinced that acting was the way in which I wanted to tell stories that I went to London to be classically trained and spent almost four years working toward that goal. It was like a case study in self destruction, I believed failure was not an option and was so driven by that fear that I didn’t clock that I was miserable, and I never asked myself if I liked acting. It took trying very hard, failing repeatedly, and being constantly unhappy for me to finally sit down and examine what it was that I wanted to do. Quitting acting scared me to death, I felt like I was losing a community and an identity, but it was also so liberating and it led me straight to finding what it was I liked and was good at. It’s still a constant journey, I’m still making mistakes and I’m extremely hard on myself when I do, but those experiences for me have ultimately all had value. I should emphasize, though, that this is not the case for everyone, and my being able to move through these failures and mistakes is very much tied to the support I have from the people in my life and the inherent privilege that I have as a white cis person. I’m very aware of that, and very fortunate and grateful to be in a position where I can overcome some of my more spectacular mistakes.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Kate: If I’m being honest, it’s Instagram; it’s a guilty pleasure. I love photography and I love seeing what people are seeing, what they think is interesting, who they love, what they think is funny or beautiful or meaningful. It’s a fascinating look into people’s minds that I can’t really get enough of. Plus, so many of my family (blood and chosen) are scattered around the globe, so being able to feel connected to them through their images is important to me.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss (or creating a film) that isn’t obvious?
Kate: One of the hardest things, but also one of the things I love most, is working with so many different personalities, finding the common ground, and then creating an atmosphere and system of communication that establishes an environment of mutual respect and allows us to create art together as a team. Film is so collaborative, and there are so many strong personalities in this industry that just the act of making everyone feel heard and valued can sometimes feel insurmountable — however, when it happens it can lead to incredible things. As the producer, it’s on you to not only create and facilitate that space for people, but to also embody the work ethic and personality that you want for any given production. You have to lead by example and be a lot of things to a lot of people, and that can be exhausting and difficult, but also rewarding.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Exercise more, I really need to get on that.
Is there a quotation or saying that inspires you and motivates you to be yourself and do what you love?
Apart from Mary Oliver, the other quote I have above my desk is actually a Rumi poem. In producing I’m constantly thinking longterm, down the line, making sure everything is set for tomorrow. It can be difficult to remember to stay present and enjoy the moment I’m in right now. Rumi kind of has a way with words (come to find), and I was given this sheet of paper with this poem on it almost 12 years ago and it’s stuck with me:
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not
grief or joy.
Not a judging state,
or an elation,
This is the presence
– Rumi, tr. Coleman Barks