Lisa Ebersole knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing intimate character pieces. After working with Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory in New York, a time during which she wrote, directed and starred in four plays, Ebersole made the leap to film. She adapted her play BROTHER into a feature film, and made the short PUDDIN’, both of which have screened at festivals nationwide. Now she leaps to the web with her 9 episode series 37 PROBLEMS, which follows a 37-year-old screenwriter who must evaluate her purpose in life when she realizes she only has one egg left. A frank and hilarious exploration of the entertainment industry, growing older and the meaning of motherhood, Ebersole’s series displays a strong command of tone and story. The Script Lab sat down with her to find out more about her writing process, and how she handles these intimate themes.
TSL: How did you get started in the arts? Which came first – writing or acting?
LE: I was a photo major at NYU in Undergrad, and I took a film class before I left – my boss at the time said “you’re at the best film school in the country, you should [take advantage].” And that brought together my love of photography with writing, so from then on film was really what I wanted to do. So the writing came first, definitely.
A couple of years into making short films, I went to see this play Off-Off-Broadway and realized that this was what I wanted to do. I want to make something real and naturalistic that the audience can relate to, that’s happening right in front of us. I began taking acting and writing classes with theater owner and actor Tom Noonan, and within the next four years I did four plays Off-Off-Broadway in New York that I wrote, directed and starred in. That got me into acting, my own work.
TSL: Coming from theater and even film, web series are a much different format. How did you choose that format for 37 Problems?
LE: I had been in grad school for screenwriting at UCLA for a few years, and had written a lot of scripts, but hadn’t made anything. The web series was my return to being able to make something. From the theater world, I missed that everything I wrote I then made into a play, and yet plays are ephemeral. I wanted to make something more lasting. The web series was an opportunity to tell a more lasting story that could be experienced from start to finish, and experienced more than one time.
TSL: What are the unique challenges of writing for this limited format, especially coming from theater and feature film? How do you structure for 5-10 mins while completing an arc?
LE: I spent about 9 months writing it – I spent a lot of time on it because it was important for me to tell a season arc for the character, but also to tell an individual story for each episode so that if you only watched one, it would still be satisfying. I journaled for about 3 months to come up with material for the web series, then wrote it out on a white board and started circling things that had to do with fertility or age, or that I found funny. The outline came organically from that.
TSL: Is journaling a process you had used before?
LE: It was a new process for me. I didn’t feel ready to open Final Draft, so I started journaling, but it was the most satisfying creative experience I’ve had. Outlines are normally very conceptual and hard to do from scratch, but this was a gentle way to organically create an outline that felt true to what I wanted to impart.
TSL: How did you balance writing, directing and acting; and how did these processes influence each other?
LE: When I write the lines, I know how it’s going to sound when I say it – I’m speaking them in my head for my character. With other characters, people surprise me, so I don’t have that experience. What I have the hardest time with is having fun and being funny when it comes to performance. I actually hired my best friend [Stephanie Sanditz], who plays September, to come in on days when she wasn’t shooting and act as an extra set of eyes. Most of the time, all she would tell me was “Have more fun with it,” and just remind me to loosen up and not take myself so seriously. When you’re in the directing mode, thinking about shots and the big picture, it can take you down when it comes to performance.
TSL: Speaking of funny moments, the show plays with tone quite a bit – is balancing humor and weighty drama something you did consciously during the writing process, or did it come organically through the material?
LE: That came from the material itself. I knew that I trusted that there would be humor in the writing, but I wasn’t afraid to let it get serious. I’m a big fan of shows like LOUIE and GIRLS that span the gamut between serious and laugh-out-loud funny. I knew that it was possible, and it became my goal going into the web series – to let it play however it did, and not worry about it being funny the whole time.
TSL: This is an intimate and raw story – what particular challenges and joys or catharsis did you face while exploring the material?
LE: I was really living what the character was living while I was making the web series, and your actions start to speak for themselves. I had a little bit of money, and I was putting it into a web series rather than freezing my own eggs, or doing any fertility treatment that I might have been able to do to further the desire to have a baby. I think it brought me closer to exploring those questions for myself: did I want to become a mother? Was I willing to do anything about it at that moment? What ultimately do I want to spent my energy on?
TSL: In addition to motherhood, this show makes some strong statements about how tough it is in the entertainment industry itself. What particular struggles have you overcome in your career, and how did you surmount them?
LE: Early on in the theater world, Tom Noonan told me to “act like it’s happening and the rest will fall into place.” I’ve had to do that with every project I’ve embarked on. There’s a point where it seems to big and insurmountable, and there’s no way that all the pieces will align. I think you have to take that initial leap of faith to act like it’s going to happen – you start booking things, hiring actors and paying for spaces, or have a reading. You start doing things that suggest the project is going to be real. Somehow it all comes together.
TSL: What were the most fun and most challenging episodes to shoot?
LE: The most challenging, just because of me, was that [first scene] on the toilet, because I couldn’t stop laughing. We probably had to do 30 takes of that scene because I kept cracking up. Everyone kept saying, “you have to get through 10 seconds of this without laughing.” That was challenging due to a case of the giggles. But the most emotionally challenging was the scene with my dad on the beach. That was the catharsis of the whole web series, and it propelled the character forward. It was challenging because we were on the beach, dealing with wind and sand, but also a very emotional scene that I wanted to land. The second episode, where [Amanda and September] are searching for the check, was a lot of fun to shoot.
You can watch the first season of 37 PROBLEMS on Vimeo now.