LOUISIANA FILM PRIZE Filmmaker Jaya McSharma on the Making and Meaning of BEST IN SHOW

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Jaya McSharma wrote, produced, co-directed and starred in Best in Show, one of 20 short films selected to compete in the 2019 Louisiana Film Prize, a unique film festival that awards a cash prize of $50,000 for the film deemed best by audience members and by film industry professionals. The dramady, a searing satire of the fashion industry, follows an unconventional fashion show model whose appearance is deemed no longer fit for the runway. Her rebellion is an inspiration to all who reject the torture of trying to stick to superficial standards of size, shape and beauty.

Jennifer Merin: What, in your own words, is Best In Show about?

Jaya McSharma: Best In Show is about an unconventional fashion model who has to decide if the price of fitting in is too high to pay; it is a journey through deciding who or what defines you!

Merin: How is Best in Show stylistically distinctive?

McSharma: I’m not sure it’s necessarily distinctive – we were very much going for a fun, flashy vibe with some somber moments mixed in! Our movie revolves around a fashion show and personal empowerment so we wanted to make sure the fashion, colors, and shot selections were bold and reflective of that theme.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

McSharma: I encountered this theme personally multiple times within a short period: first when I became unexpectedly pregnant, and what that meant for my identity and/or life goals ; second, when my already tenuous body image was subjected to the inevitable physical changes of pregnancy and the barrage of unsolicited commentary that comes with it; and lastly when I sat in my monthly professional women’s group and marveled at how 8 successful, talented, and brave women could be reduced to tears when talking about self-image. This last moment struck me very pointedly because I assumed that my own insecurities were tied to my perceived failure to achieve certain milestones, and like many women, I felt I was alone in my unique brand of misery. But when I listened to eight of the most accomplished women I had ever met say the same things about themselves and their bodies as the meanest voice in my head, I realized it was all bullshit: not only the messaging branded onto us but the time we waste worrying about it! I walked out of that meeting resolved to make a film that could expose the audience’s own amazingness and reflect it back to them. The characters in our movie are representative of these same voices at work in our every day lives – Sophie, the protagonist who wants to believe in herself but is vulnerable to others’ opinions of her; Vera, the naysayer who represents those limitations and doubts; and Julia, the best friend who sees Sophie’s potential and thinks outside the lines.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

McSharma: I learned that though self-actualization is hardly an original theme, it is still important one. We have years of traumatic experiences and societal propaganda feeding us the message that we aren’t good enough, and removing that limiting belief is worth every attempt in whatever form. We felt proud at the end of that film that even if it wasn’t perfect, it still got the message across. We need to keep hearing this message because it’s one we have to keep learning over and over again.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film.

McSharma: This was our second short film, and we definitely went bigger and bolder with sets, production, and ambition in telling a large story! We learned that you can focus on a singular moment or a larger arc and accomplish the same thing. We also learned that sometimes simpler is better, and you don’t need to go for a complicated set up to make a “better movie”; you have to focus on the endgame throughout the process, which is, “Am I getting my message across in the most effective way?” Sometimes less is more. We also learned you can’t put a price on pre-production!

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

McSharma: Money and time! We only had a few weeks of pre-production and writing a story about a fashion show was a rude awakening for set design! We realized we did not personally have the funds to make such a film and that if we wanted to proceed, it would have to be through crowdfunding, which is an idea we had been resistant to in the past. It’s also difficult to allot as much time as you would like when you essentially have volunteer actors working on set because there were so many schedules to manage that we crammed everything into one weekend. No matter how much you are able to plan, there will be on-set changes and problems that can’t be helped. However, if we could go back and do it again, we would have loved to have another day of filming the finale fashion show scene, because we just didn’t get all the shots and moments that we wanted!

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

McSharma: Yes, definitely. Even though the film’s message was inspired by and designed for women, I wanted it to be universal enough that anyone could feel its effects. Everyone is boxed in by certain pressures and expectations, but I think categorically women are told with more frequency who and what they’re supposed to be and look like, and I was very focused on that coming across in the film!

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

McSharma: To make more movies! We have plans to turn our first short film, #BrownBridgetMD, into a series, and we would love to work on turning Best In Show into a feature! We also plan on returning to compete a third time in the Louisiana Film Prize next year with another short film.

Merin: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

McSharma: Well this may sound corny, but our best friends and local filmmakers Josh and Melissa Munds have really inspired us because we saw them doing what we wanted to do, and they helped us believe that we could do it ourselves! I love their style because they always tell the story that they want and believe in their own voices. They’ve had 3 films in the top 20 of the Louisiana Film Prize and helped us make both of ours. I also really enjoy the writing of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, and Mindy Kaling. I know everyone loves them (with good reason!), but in an age where cynicism sometimes seems to be the only way to be considered cool and artsy, I love that their writing is unabashedly hopeful – comedy with heart that makes you feel like anything is possible in your own life. That’s exactly the kind of art I want to make. I don’t care if it’s cheesy! I like cheese!

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

McSharma: COME ON IN, THE WATER’S FINE! Do NOT, under any circumstances, fall prey to the notion that there is a finite amount of space for our voices and our stories. Honestly when Mindy Kaling became successful, a lot of people (including my inside Debbie Downer voice) were like, “Uh oh! There’s already a successful Indian actress with your kind of jokes, what’re you going to do now?” As if there is the one spot and now it was taken. Did anyone ever say, “Aw man, the one successful man spot has been taken, guess I’ll change my entire life’s passion”? NOPE! No one can tell YOUR story or enact YOUR vision the way you can, because no one else has lived your life. A rising tide floats all boats. We need more female voices, not less. We are not in competition with each other. The room is infinite. Just as I have been welcomed into the film community by fellow female filmmakers, so will I pay that forward to the best of my ability. Strength in numbers, ladies…let’s do this!

ABOUT JAYA McSHARMA: Jaya & Jacob McSharma are a baby-making, cat-loving husband-and-wife team whose passion lies in telling stories with connection and heart! Their debut short film, #BrownBridgetMD, premiered in the top 20 of the Louisiana Film Prize in 2018, winning the Best Actress Award, and went on to be accepted to multiple festivals across the country! They live in Shreveport with the best 3 cats in the world – Rose, Neo, and Wally – and are expecting their first human child in November 2019!

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