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Miranda Sajdak
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ACTION! REPRESENTATION! MacGYVER!

an interview with miranda sajdak


The Green Room

As a filmmaker who’s worked on so many projects that IMDB can’t even come close to keeping up with her, Miranda Sajdak has seen just about everything there is to see behind the scenes.  In this interview, she talks about her upcoming directorial effort, her winning idea for “The Next MacGyver,” and how very important it is for women to get more representation in Hollywood, not just in front of the camera, but also behind it.  She’s also got some advice for aspiring writers… and a taste for a beverage that made even Ziggy do a double take.


The Interview



Ziggy Berkeley: Let’s start with where you’ve been.  You’ve been deeply involved with a whole lot of things that everyone has heard of, but by your own accounting, IMDB maybe has ten percent of it listed.  Care to lay the groundwork and give those reading a nickel tour?

Miranda Sajdak:  Oh, man. Okay, well, I've worked on somewhere between 60 and 100 short films over the past decade.  (I'm not sure how many exactly; I stopped keeping count after 50.)  The [other] biggest projects I've worked on have been things like Bourne Ultimatum and Cloverfield, and ABC Family's Huge, and Adult Swim's China, IL. I have a mix of experience, as I've been in essentially every department. Currently, I work doing screenplay coverage for independent clients and studios.   

Ziggy Berkeley:  And now, your social media has been lighting up with the hashtag #MirandaDirects.  What are you directing, and at what stage is that project?

Miranda Sajdak: I'm currently gearing up to direct an action short, starring James Kyson from Heroes, and hopefully some other fun cast as we get closer to production. I'm excited about this one, as I'll really get to dive into some fun action elements, which I haven't had the chance to do before. The project is around 1/3 of the way funded, so we've got some ways to go - but not too far, all things considered. We're excited to be making it and couldn't ask for a more supportive fan base.  [Ziggy's Note: When you're done here, check it out! ]

Ziggy Berkeley:  Why this movie?  What is it about this story in particular that draws you in?

Miranda Sajdak: The story is called No Trace, and it follows an undercover cop who robs a bank for the mob, only to find herself on the run from her former partners. For me, it combines all the elements I love in a movie - action, crime, drama, and a little bit of humor. It's basically got it all, and it does some genre-bending, which I love. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  You’ve noted that you have a particular love for action movies.  What about the genre speaks to you?

Miranda Sajdak: I think for me there are a number of things that speak to me. First of all, I'm a martial arts practitioner myself.  (Brown belt in American Style Karate; I’ve also have taken some minimal Arnis and Baguazhang, and I'm currently studying Tae Kwon Do.)  It's a representation of what I do to exercise/relax, but on-screen.  So it lets me utilize and also see what I do in my own life in filmmaking.  Additionally, there's the adrenaline and larger-than-life elements; I love the risk factor involved in seeing an everyman or everywoman take on a seemingly insurmountable physical obstacle and overcome it. That's why, though I adore things like Die Hard.  Some of my favorite action films are more focused on martial arts elements - things like The Raid, District B13, and Ong Bak. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  As a fellow action junkie, there’s a quick series I have to ask, and I know that the answers won’t necessarily have to mesh with each other: what your favorite action flick, who’s your favorite action star, and what’s your favorite action scene, with a “why” tacked onto each?

Miranda Sajdak: This is tough!!  Favorite flick - hmm.  For now, let's say District B13, because it really brought a new flavor of action - which we now see in many films - to life, focusing on bringing in parkour practitioners/experts as its leads to guarantee really fun stunt elements.  (Obviously, we've seen this done from the early days of martial arts action cinema, with iconic stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.)

Favorite star - probably a 3-way tie between Bruce Willis, Geena Davis, and Zhang Ziyi, and you'd have to watch their action films to see why! 

Favorite action scene - this one from Endhiran, an Indian film. It's - well - it has to be seen to be believed.  For me, it's just balls to the walls entertaining, doesn't take itself too seriously, and is unbelievably fun.  

Ziggy Berkeley:  Speaking of action stars, you mentioned a moment ago that you’ve made a casting coup for your own upcoming film.  Tell us about your star.

Miranda Sajdak: Yes!  My male lead is James Kyson from Heroes.  I'm thrilled at the chance to work with James; I've known him for a little while now, and he's just one of the smartest and most generous people I've had the honor to meet.  He's really engaged in learning and perfecting different action techniques, too, so it's a treat to get to meet an actor who's so mentally present along the lines of the project.  

Ziggy Berkeley:  Even moreso than any casting victories, though, I think your hashtag says the most important part: #MirandaDirects.  I get it, but why should the audience at large be excited to see a woman directing a feature length action movie?  Or any movie, for that matter?

Miranda Sajdak: Great question. For those who don't regularly follow along with the Geena Davis Institute or Women and Hollywood or the MDSC Initiative, the stats are really bad for women directors in Hollywood today, especially when it comes to genre films like horror, action, sci-fi, etc. I think it tends to hover around the 5% mark for the top 250 films each year, so that means about 12 of those movies are being directed by women.  For minority women, of course, the numbers are even worse.  If you're following me on Twitter at all (@MirandaSajdak), you'll have seen that that's a big issue for me as a filmmaker – getting more women and more diversity in front of and behind the camera – and I feel a certain responsibility to do so as much as possible.  I was inspired to get into film after seeing a movie by a female director, and I keep wondering how many generations of women directors have been lost if the visibility in the profession just isn't there.  So, it's a cause I believe in strongly, and something I hope to be a part of changing for the better. 

I also will say I don't see it as a zero-sum game.  As I think I've mentioned, I adore action films, and most of those are directed by men.  I have no problem with male directors whatsoever.  I don't sit here thinking "I wish Steven Spielberg would direct fewer movies;" I sit here thinking "I wish Ava DuVernay would direct more."  So my goal is really to even things out, but less by removing what's already there, and more by adding to it with the great and underrepresented talent that's out there. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  And that brings us to the current tempest of #OscarsSoWhite, which is really a reflection of #HollywoodSoWhite and, frankly, #HollywoodSoMale.  How big are the gaps, and do the Powers That Be honestly feel any pressure to diversify when the news cameras aren’t around, or do they seem to you as an insider to feel that they’re “too big to fail”?

Miranda Sajdak: I honestly don't know the answer to that question. I'm not far enough inside at the top levels in studios to really know. I think the conversations are happening in bigger ways than they have been in my lifetime, certainly, but I don't know whether that's going to result in just lip service or if things will really change. I hope they'll change for the better, for everyone. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  If the mainstream entertainment industries don’t clue in and continue to resist diversity in front of and behind the camera, what does that mean for the audience?  Is there any positive momentum on the horizon that looks like it might have a genuine impact?

Miranda Sajdak: I look at audience demographics a lot, and I believe the biggest growing demo is Hispanic women, which is interesting, as I feel like they're pretty underrepresented on-screen and behind the camera in studio films. So, that's something that I definitely look at. I hope that the momentum in looking at those demos will drive studios toward some more diversification. We saw it this year with Universal's slate being really diverse and doing exceptionally well, and I hope the others will fall more along those lines as well in coming years. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  Along with laments that #OscarsSoWhite, for many, many years now there’s also been the complaint that the Oscars and other movie and television award shows are utterly out of touch with what the “real” audience enjoys/wants to see.  Do you see that yourself, and along those lines, do you think there’s any real point anymore to these awards as gigantic public events beyond what they do for Marketing departments and for hiking professionals’ salary demands?

Miranda Sajdak: I'm actually really mixed on this, because I don't really know.  I love award shows – I've always loved watching them – and I think this may be the first year I won't tune in to the Oscars in about 21 years, which is a crazy thing to say.  I think they do matter, but I think they matter in the way they always have. On the one hand, I tend to be a viewer who, aside from action films, doesn't see a lot of blockbuster/tentpole movies; I tend to see the small "Oscar bait"-labeled dramas that come out between September and December.  So, for me, as a viewer, those are the kinds of films I tend to be drawn to.  And I get the sense that these shows might keep them alive, because there aren't a whole lot of studios making them anymore. We're not getting the $1-15 million dollar features.  It's primarily tentpoles.  So, I guess my hope would be that something survives to keep these types of films alive, but I don't know that it necessarily has to be the Oscars to do that.  But whatever it is, I hope they remain, because I'll have a lot less to watch if they go away.  So I guess my answer is that I hope they stick around, and I hope they keep awarding the smaller, critically-acclaimed films, because I fear [those films] don't get noticed otherwise. But that doesn't mean I don't want to see [the Oscars] diversify, because I do want that, as well. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  Of course, there was, not so long ago, a sign that someone did get the message about mixing things up.  Specifically, there was a call for people to submit ideas for “The Next MacGyver,” with the stipulation that the next MacGyver be female… and you were one of the winners!  Tell us about your idea.

Miranda Sajdak: Okay, so The Next MacGyver asked us to come up with ideas for a show starring a female engineer.  My idea takes place during WWII and follows a young woman whose fiancé is killed overseas. Determined to make sure that never happens again, the girl goes to work as an engineer, learning and perfecting her trade to do her part for the war effort. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  What inspired you?  What drew you to the world of “MacGyver”?

Miranda Sajdak: Wow, well, I don't know for sure.  I think I wanted to get away from the science procedural and explore an era I've always been interested in: the WWII homefront.  That was a time when we really saw huge progress for women in the workforce, and something that's rarely explored on-screen.  I've actually only seen one “MacGyver” episode, but I dug the humor and the lightheartedness.  The tone definitely feels up my alley. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  How would you save the world with duct tape?  You can also use chewing gum, a pocketknife, and a paperclip if necessary.

Miranda Sajdak: I think my answer to this is inappropriate for public consumption.  Find a magical way to duct tape a solution to world hunger, I suppose.

Speaking of which, and slightly off-topic, have you read Jack Andraka's book “Breakthrough”?  It's about a young science genius finding a way to test for pancreatic cancer.  Anyway, I really enjoyed the book, and it definitely profiles a “MacGyver”-level experience. 

 Ziggy Berkeley:  You were one of a small group of winners for “The Next MacGyver.”  What happens next?  Is there a further whittling process?  Do all of your ideas move on to some stage of development?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Miranda Sajdak: Yes, next I work on developing the pilot with Scott Free, Ridley Scott's company. So I'm working with Clayton Krueger and some other great mentors over there - Jess Lubben and Carina Sposato. Everyone there is fantastic, and it's been an honor to get to read their notes and (try to!) apply them to my script.

 Ziggy Berkeley:  And what of No Trace?  Is there any tentative timetable on cameras rolling, or is that still way too early to call?

Miranda Sajdak: Looking at the summer right now, but it'll depend on fundraising and everyone's schedules. Gotta align right with talent and crew availability. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  Meanwhile, you often describe regular days of “coverage hell.”  For those who might not understand, what is “coverage”?

Miranda Sajdak: Ah, yes.  So, coverage is essentially (boiled down) like doing a book report on a script (or book) for a studio or writer.  I read the script or book, write a synopsis, and then put together notes on whether it's ready to be produced, any changes it might need, etc.  It's an intense process.  I jokingly call it hell, but I actually love doing it - even when I get 800 pages of books to read over one weekend (not that that just happened this weekend).  But I do love it, and I genuinely enjoy most of the stuff I read.  It's really rare to find something I either really love or really dislike, so it's usually just entertaining reading, and then deciding whether it's ready for production. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  You have the floor for a ten point Master Class.  What are five things that you see way too often that aspiring writers should avoid?

Miranda Sajdak:  Okay - 1) Always proofread, 2) Use a screenwriting program so you're formatting correctly to save yourself a headache, 3) Make your character introductions dynamic and engaging, 4) There's a difference between being crass and being edgy - find the line and try hard not to cross it, and 5) Your personal experience needs to be dramatically engaging to make the script sellable - "write what you know" usually isn't meant literally.

Ziggy Berkeley:  Continuing on, what are five things that you don’t see often enough that you wish more writers would include?

Miranda Sajdak: 1) More diversity in general, 2) Believable, three-dimensional female characters, 3) Active rather than reactive protagonists, 4) Bribes (just kidding; this doesn't work), and uhhh 5) More interesting transitions.  I don't mean star-wipes, but I'm not averse, if it works. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  I understand that you may not be at liberty to describe things you’ve read that haven’t yet been produced, but do you have one or two favorite scripts you can think of that have been produced?  What about them stands out to you?

Miranda Sajdak: Yes!  I'll talk about one that is coming out next month. Jack of the Red Hearts was my favorite script before 2015, and is still in my top 5 of all time.  It's a really engaging script that follows a teen con artist who needs to prove she can hold down a job in order to get her sister out of foster care, so she tricks a family into hiring her as a live-in caretaker for their autistic daughter.  It's really engaging and surprising, and one of the most creative uses of a female lead I've seen in a long time.  And it seems so simple in so many ways, like "why haven't I read something like this before?"  But I never had.  It was fantastic.  And the lead character, Jack, is phenomenal.  The writer is Jennifer Deaton, and the producer is Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, and it won Geena Davis's Bentonville Film Festival Jury Prize their first year.  It comes to theaters February 26th, and stars Famke Janssen and AnnaSophia Robb, and has a female director, Janet Grillo, so everyone should go see it. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  As a member of the audience, what’s on your short list of favorite movies, and why?

Miranda Sajdak: Okay, short list.  Winter's Bone - great use of a female lead, non-sexualized, has agency, feels really real, and shows a world we haven't seen before.  Amazing dialogue.  Kill Bill 1 & 2 - same deal, awesome action sequences. The Hours - love the drama and intercutting among the three time periods. Magnolia/Babel/21 Grams - on my best of "interconnected worlds" list, all with great female roles. Mulholland Dr. - a great portrait of the biz, love, and the truth behind the lie in the city of dreams. And, two last ones - Closer, for its dialogue and making me learn to love Portman and Roberts, who I didn't realize were so great, and Beau Travail. The last I won't even say why - just see it. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  Do you find that your work within the industry makes it more difficult for you to just sit back and enjoy a movie or a television show, or are you able to divorce those two aspects of yourself for the sake of being able to relax and have fun with things?

Miranda Sajdak: Hmm. Yes and no.  I think I have a harder time suspending disbelief sometimes, so a movie really has to step to the plate and engage me right away.  I rarely watch animation anymore, because it's so hard for me to get into it - harder than it is to get into real people, who are hard enough to buy on-screen! So I think there are some elements there that working in the industry makes difficult. But I wouldn't have it any other way!  I think if you're going to be a director or producer or writer, having really strong feelings about what you like and want to see is important in telling your stories in an engaging way.  So I don't feel bad about having those strong opinions, because I think it just makes my own work that much more clear. 

Ziggy Berkeley:  Speaking of relaxing and having fun, final question I always ask: what type of cheese and recreational beverage would you pair yourself with?

Miranda Sajdak: Hmm... 1) Mac & whatever kind, and 2) Lexi'll laugh at me for this if she ever reads it, but Schöfferhofer would be my beverage of choice. 

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No Trace

- Interview conducted by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2016


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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