Hannah Cheesman on "Whatever, Linda"
By Eva Crocker
Hannah Cheesman is the co-creator, co-writer and star of the webseries, “Whatever, Linda”.
Hannah's short film "Cheese" showed at SJIWFF26, where I had the opportunity to talk to her about writing for the web, the challenges of making a period piece and what it means to make a feminist show.
Watch “Whatever, Linda” on the show’s website.
HC: “Whatver, Linda” is a revisionist history piece set in 1978 that surrounds four women working on the forty-fourth floor of Barney Lahnar Investment Services. It’s really inspired by the Bernie Madoff ponzi scandal, the biggest white collar crime in history. Bernie Madoff had a floor of admin people cooking books since the late seventies. Some of those admin people were women and they made a lot of money over the years. My co-creator and co-writer, Julian DeZotti and I said, what if it weren’t Bernie who came up with this massive ponzi scheme but the cunning, attractive secretary, who we named Linda Thoroughbred.
“Whatever, Linda” shines a light on what it was like for women in that era. In particular it imagines what it might have been like for women in that era on Wall Street. It looks at a lot of the same themes that we’re experiencing today in terms of corporate greed and glass ceilings for minorities (I include women in that use of minorities).
Our first season is out and it looks like we won’t do a second season for web because we sold the show to a company in the states. We are developing the first season into a half hour dramedy for television.
SJIWFF: What about the webseries genre appealed to you?
HC: Julian and I asked ourselves how we could best tell the story and create this feminized Bernie Maynoff world. Frankly, we really responded to where the money was. We have a few different funds in Canada for digital series now, back then it was mostly just the Independent Production Fund. We tailored the script to be serialized and went in that direction.
Some people see web as a minature, less rule-bent format of television and some people see it as a completely different species. I think there are arguments for both. In our case it was more like a digital television show but I think there are lots of webseries out there that employ digital strategic writing and digital strategic production in a way that is interesting and more web specific.
SJIWFF: Was it difficult to write such short episodes?
I am used to being able to write with greater length in mind. Julian and I were producing scripts that were eleven to thirteen pages long when we started. Thankfully our director, executive producer and co-executive producer have good narrative minds. They were constantly reeling us in by saying, what can you cut, where can you make this tighter, tell this visually, lose that dialogue. We needed something snappy with cliff-hangers. It was challenging to try and do something so succinctly and not lose characterization. Once you have that raw material in the can the second half of cutting something down and tightening it is the editing room.
SJIWFF: Can you talk more about telling things visually instead of through dialogue?
HC: That’s a classic filmmaking lesson. I’ve been writing in various formats for my whole life and I like reading novels, so I think in those terms sometimes. Even though I’ve read a bajillion scripts at this point and now I’ve written a good number of scripts. Matt Eastman, our director and one of my best friends pushes me to tell things visually in all my scripts, not just “Whatever, Linda”. It’s a visual medium, a director is a visual story-teller. It’s a lesson I think about all the time when I’m screenwriting. It’s better to tell things visually and only use stylized and quippy dialogue. There’s a lot of stylized dialogue in “Whatever, Linda”. That kind of dialogue is one of my strengths but I’m pushing myself to write things that are clearer and more appealing to directors. Writing that actually works the medium, which is visual.
SJIWFF: Can you think of an instance where you told something through dialogue and then went back and told it visually instead?
HC: One thing we struggled with was explaining how a ponzi scheme works with clarity in an interesting way. You don’t want to go into a lengthy expositional piece, nobody wants to watch that. The worst thing you can do in screenwriting is make your exposition obvious. You want to make it exciting and couch it in a lot of great visuals. Matt really worked hard with us on describing the ponzi scheme. We talked about it as an Ocean’s Eleven montage-y moment, where Linda is explaining how the scheme is going to work. If you watch that scene it’s very visual; you’ve got Pepper at dinner being flirtatious, you’ve got Linda looking at stocks and listening to the radio, you’ve got Didi doing some swagger as she’s taking the envelope that’s just been signed by Annabel over to the outbox to get their money. It has voice over but it’s not someone looking someone else in the eye explaining how the scheme will work.
SJIWFF: What were some of the challenges of making a piece set in the 70s?
HC: I was just in L.A. and I watched a movie, the third cut of a feature film that was set in the thirties and made with a small budget. I realized that if a piece of clothing looks old timey but the texture of it is Zara or Top Shop it’s hard for the viewer to give into the world. The viewer actually resents the world if details like that stick out. Doing anything period on a budget is incredibly challenging. Where we lucked out was that we had all of our locations in one building. It was this amazing, decrepit building in Toronto that has a lot of standing sets. Using that space minimized a lot of costs and allowed us to make sure our production manager (who was top-notch) and our set-designer (who was top-notch) and our hair and make up people had more resources to create a world that feels believably 1978. Our director was clever about putting things on a scale that was contained enough that you got glimpses of a world but enough that you could see the seams. Not enough to let you know that it was a dressed set being filmed today. Before we shot we hunted around New York for places that look like they are still in the seventies to shoot some exteriors. That let us create a bigger world outside of the small contained world where we shot the episodes.
SJIWFF: On the “Whatever, Linda” website you have a timeline called "Feminism Through the Ages". Do you think it’s a second wave story?
HC: Julian and I didn’t necessarily set out to make a feminist piece. We wanted to make something that we could employ women within, which is feminist. I would say the show is simplistic in the way it addresses feminism in some places. I have come up against some interesting criticisms of the piece having to do with feminism. There are so many different ways that people think about feminism. Feminism has a lot of baggage considering it’s ultimately suppose to be liberating. I hesitate to say where the piece sits in the feminist timeline because we made it today. It comes from my own unique experience and point of view, filtered through what I imagine it might have been like for my mom. I’ve put a lot of work into thinking about how we want to handle the feminist angle in the upcoming television version of the show. I want it to be as sensitive and savvy and smart as possible.
SJIWFF: I asked because I think there are moments in the show where the jokes suggest that the piece is written in the present by someone who is investigating an earlier period in feminist history.
HC: I think me and Julian kind of did that in a fumbling way. Now that I’ve fielded some criticism around it, I know I want to handle it a little bit differently moving forward. But the criticism was a great reminder to me that there is still interaction between now and then happening and that’s interesting and relevant. It’s hard to navigate something that’s so heated. Everyone has different opinions and experiences.
SJIWFF: I think there are moments in the show that kind of point to the idea of there being different ways of understanding what it means to be a feminist.
HC: There are four women who have very different experiences. There’s Didi who is a black woman in 1978 on Wall Street, you have Annabel who’s a closeted lesbian who comes from an Italian Catholic background who has a bunch of kids and a husband. We were trying to examine various experiences of feminism, maybe not consciously, through the characters. I’m also responding to the question of what the responsibility of art is, what kind of care do we need to take when we approach philosophical and political questions through art. I think a lot about “Transparent” the Jill Soloway, Amazon show starring Jeffrey Tambor. It's about a man transitioning into a woman in his late fifties in the show. I’ve heard Jill Soloway talk about being unpoliticized and not aware of the trans-community until she started working on the show. In a tiny micro-cosmic way I’ve had similar realizations about my shortcomings when it comes to understanding feminism. There’s always room to be more sensitive and to grow. I’m still processing this stuff in a big way.
SJIWFF: What advice do you have for first time female filmmakers?
HC: Try to find a mentor. I’ve had a few experiences of working with women that have really impacted me. Even just seeing that a project has a woman director has been powerful. The other piece of advice I have is just do it, you’re going to fail, you’re going to make things that aren’t good. I have, I will again. Start in the mess, the chaos and fear of how you feel when you make something for the first time. That energy coalescing into a finalized thing will make you realize that you can do it again.