Sharisse Zeroonian on Flaky Crew Members, Telling Off Critics and Why Symbolism is (Usually) Bogus

Sharisse Zeroonian, right, in a scene from “The Mouse in the Bread” (2018).

Sharisse Zeroonian, a Boston-area filmmaker, writer and actress, has, at only 25, made two feature films (“Well Water” and “The Mouse in the Bread“; the latter ran for a brief time on Amazon Prime), a pilot for a semi-autobiographical online show (“One Plus One is Two,” trailer here) and, most recently, a comedic series (“Sandbox Police”) in which three recent college grads discuss their travails and humiliations (all webisodes were shot over Zoom during COVID-19, and can be seen here.)

Though she’s experienced her share of anxiety as a director, Zeroonian is tireless in navigating through the perils and limitations of no-budget productions. When, at the zero hour, a crew member cancels or a shooting location falls through, she plows ahead, thinking up makeshift ways to get around these hindrances.

Sometimes her solutions are seamless–as when, in “Mouse,” Zeroonian had to photograph herself under a blanket, eavesdropping on a conversation, to fill a narrative hole. At other times, despite painstaking efforts, an undeniable coarseness remains–in several of her productions, for instance, it’s obvious that two parts of the same conversation were taped at different times and locations. Some of the primitive qualities seem unavoidable given the constraints of bootstrapped filmmaking (i.e., overhead airplanes drowning out dialogue); others–awkwardly long pauses between verbal exchanges, for example–could likely have been fixed with more focused editing.

And yet, while mishaps like these have plagued plenty of other indie films, to the point where the audience is too distracted or frustrated to pay attention to the dialogue, in Zeroonian’s case, the exceptional script and acting usually outshine any visual and aural flaws.

Some critics and viewers have excoriated her work–not just the physical production but the relaxed pace, tentative interplay between characters and deliberately unresolved denouements. (As you will see below, Zeroonian makes no bones about taking these detractors on–sometimes face-to-face). But more patient viewers recognize that Zeroonian’s characters are meant to be unformed; as she herself puts it, they don’t have much life experience, and when they try to talk like adults they sound woefully naive.

Her youth-centered films are a refreshingly happy medium between, say, mumblecore outings like “Funny Ha Ha” (in which the characters are so tongue-tied that the dialogue seems stilted) and stylized youth pictures such as “Juno” (in which the teenagers are rendered wise-cracking, miniaturized adults). Her characters say just enough that scenes move fluidly, but not so much that they turn ostentatious; the ironies and themes are apparent but not overstated.

Most impressive, however, is Sheroonian’s naked honesty about her own tribulations. She grappled with learning disabilities, behavioral problems and social snobbery during childhood, and these struggles are laid bare on the screen. This is especially true in “Mouse,” which is more autobiographical than “Well Water.” And yet, as with the best dramas, no character is entirely wrong or entirely right, at any point in the story.

I spoke to Zeroonian from her childhood home, where she still lives, and discussed her turbulent adolescence, her admiration of Ray Carney (the iconoclastic film professor who taught her at Boston University), and–for the second time on this web site–why “American Beauty” sucks.

The refreshingly uncertain denouement of “Well Water” (2017).

Sam Weisberg: Your films have mysterious titles, where viewers really have to focus to figure out their meaning. How do you come up with them?

Sharisse Zeroonian: When I was really little, I was staying with my Grandma. She was trying to make me a sandwich and the loaf had a dead mouse in it. She didn’t want to tell me because I was like, four; she didn’t want to scare me off bread. She probably said, “Oh, we don’t have bread.” The supermarket [offered to] pay her $200 if she kept quiet about it, so she did. I made that a metaphor for things we don’t talk about. The fact that the guy hit his girlfriend, or the fact that the parents’ marriage is going to shit and they can’t acknowledge it.

For “Well Water,” the title came a little later. I had the script first. I thought about the power struggle between [the couple]. Ben wants something out of life that Cora doesn’t. I tied it to their search for a house—they have fantasies of being older and living together. Ben wants a house in one area, she wants one in a different area. And Ben wants to know if the water [at the house] comes from a well, like in a rural area, which he’s more used to. Cora wants a more upscale life, to be a photographer and go to New York, and Ben wants a more relaxed thing.

There was this one reviewer who said, “The kids go into conversations about sex and marriage but it always lacks depth.” And I was like, “Why do you think that is? They’re teenagers.” They’re trying to sound smart, they’re trying to sound like they understand adult things, but then they don’t. They end up failing miserably every time. That’s the point.

SW: I read your very, uh, passionate response to that reviewer on Twitter. Did she write back?

SZ: Oh, yeah. She wrote back to me on Twitter: “It’s very unprofessional the way you talked to me.” I said, “Yeah, but, it seems to me you didn’t even try to carefully analyze the film. That’s your job.” And she’s like, “OK, well, your explanation doesn’t change the way I feel. You can’t say I can’t have an opinion.” And I said, “I never said that. I just wish your opinion had more intellectual [heft] behind it.”

SW: I wonder if she’s seen any of the mumblecore films. I actually thought your characters were way more articulate than in those films. In “Funny Ha Ha,” for instance, they’re the most stammering, monosyllabic characters I’ve ever seen, and it’s very meandering, and yet it got raves.

SZ: We watched that in film school, and a couple of other [Andrew] Bujalski films, that were a little better, like “Beeswax.” That one hit me the most emotionally.

SW: I’m not one of those people that think all articulate young people sound stilted. I read your response to that reviewer, that they’re not as smart as they think they are. But they are smart.

SZ: Yeah. They’re pseudo-intellectual.

SW: I hate movies that lionize the way kids speak. I hate “American Beauty.”

SZ: Oh my God, I hate that movie! It’s the worst script ever. Everybody raves about it, and when I was in film school, our T.A. showed us the opening scene, and she was saying, “So here’s Annette Bening cutting the rose, which symbolizes killing beauty.” I was like, alright, I understand a little bit of symbolism, but you gotta chill.

SW: It’s symbolism with a very heavy hammer.

SZ: Do you know who Ray Carney is? He was my professor. I had him twice at Boston University.

SW: He’s Gena Rowlands’ mortal enemy, right?

SZ: Yeah. He’s a John Cassavetes expert. Some of the other professors I’ve had tend to reduce characters to being symbols for race and gender sexuality, rather than people. I’m not saying you should avoid talking about those things, but not everything a character does has to do with their race, or their gender.

You know “Master of None,” with Aziz Ansari? We were talking about that in class, and this girl said how it’s important because it features a brown Indian Muslim man whose parents are immigrants but he was born here, and they like [American] things like basketball, and he dates all kinds of women who aren’t necessarily the same race or ethnicity. And my professor and some of the people in my class said, “Oh, he’s just doing that to cater to a white audience.” And I was like, “Hang on. I’m Armenian, I come from an immigrant family and we have those interests, too! So if you think it’s so farfetched that someone like me or like the character on this show would like those things, and they must be making it up, isn’t that kind of prejudiced to say?”

With Carney, he didn’t make everything into a sociology lesson rather than an art lesson.

SW: What I hate about symbolism is that it implies there’s a right or wrong way to read something, when film, especially is a pretty amorphous medium. And that ca n make you feel stupid, when it needn’t.

SZ: Exactly! That’s what Carney said. “Symbolism is there to make you feel smart.” Films put in these little metaphors so people can get them and feel like they’re being smart. So I don’t really do too much of that.

Before I took Carney’s class, I thought of indie film as, “Oh, who wants to watch that?” And he showed us films that weren’t made for much money. And some of them were much more thought-provoking. They had a soul. And [I realized] I don’t have to wait for a fairy to give me a million dollars.

SW: Carney became a hero of mine when I stumbled upon his essays trashing Vincent Canby [chief New York Times critic from 1969 to 1994]. Canby was just the driest guy. If he didn’t like something, he wasn’t fun or effusive about it, the way Pauline Kael was.

SZ: A lot of assignments we had in class was to criticize criticism.

When you watched “Mouse,” did you notice one particular Cassavetes film that was an influence?

SW: “A Woman Under the Influence.”

SZ: Ding ding! That was the main film that influenced it.

SW: The mother-daughter scenes?

SZ: Well, the main point is that we can’t figure out if [my character Lily’s] crazy or her environment is. At first everyone is accepting her behavior and by the end they aren’t. We didn’t know if it was her or them.

SW: I especially loved and related to the scene where the mother talks about the daughter’s elementary school teachers being too hard on her, for being a dreamer. Where she says, “They should have given you a break, you were fucking LEARNING!”

SZ: I love that scene, too. At the premiere, a woman came up to me and said, “As the mother of a special needs child, I related so hard.” I was really touched by that.

SW: And the juxtaposition of that, where the grandmother says “She’s a delightful girl” and the mother goes, “Really? She’s so weird.” But that is sadly common: you come to your child’s defense one second and the next you insult or condescend to them. How much of that was autobiographical?

SZ: I think people are going to sleep in my house right now, so I can say this: a lot of it was. In school, I had to deal with stuff like that from the teachers, and other people. Some people speculate in reviews that Lily has undiagnosed autism. I really didn’t want to give her a label like that. In film, if you do that, the audience will play psychologist. They’ll look for symptoms, and they’ll be like, “Oh, is the character looking people in the eye? That’s not accurate!” And that’s why I left it open-ended. She is the way she is.

SW: She’s very articulate. When I was growing up, I was a fast reader, I could spell well, I had a good vocabulary, but I found myself in this slow readers class with three people, and it always really confused me. And it wasn’t until years later that I happened upon one of my old report cards, which said I had issues with comprehension. And it makes total sense, why I wasn’t a standardized test person. My intelligence was, uh, different.

SZ: It’s like that old saying: If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life feeling stupid. I was supposed to be evaluated, to see if I have ADD, but coronavirus happened. [NOTE: when we got back in touch shortly before this story ran, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with ADHD.] It’s been a big struggle for me, at school and work, how everyone else could be organized and I couldn’t. And this related to school performance and behavioral stuff too, when I was younger. My parents got called all the time when I was in pre-school, because I’d crawl under the table and act like a dog, crazy shit like that, when I was supposed to be listening. And my parents were like, “Alright, so fucking what?” They didn’t really act on it. So I kind of lived as sort of the weird kid. I still sort of am.

My mom and I have a great relationship, she’s never switched in her opinion of me, like “You’re a fucking weird kid,” as in the movie. But the thing with Lily’s dad—that’s definitely based on my life. My dad and I are pretty much estranged: we’re forced to live in the same house now that I moved back in, but we don’t really talk.

SW: Are your parents together?

SZ: They are but they shouldn’t be. I don’t know why I’m oversharing my life story. [laughs] My dad chooses not to have a relationship with me. What I grew up with was way worse than what I was showing in the film.

SW: In the film, the father [played superbly by Alexander Hauck] is allowed some sweetness.

SZ: Of course. I think it’s taking the easy way out to just write about one-dimensional people. And I’ve had good moments with my dad. But that scene in the car was taken almost verbatim from a conversation with my father, where he admitted he didn’t enjoy fatherhood. We were driving by my elementary school and he said, without a hint of rancor or anger—it seemed like a cathartic, confessional moment for him—“People used to reminisce about those days [when their children were little], like, ‘Oh, they were so nice,’ but they weren’t really that nice.” And there was a separate conversation—I don’t even think he was talking about me, but I overheard it—about people leaving work to dress up with their kids on Halloween. And my dad said, “I don’t get that. Why would you leave work to do that?”

So I put that in the movie. And my character could have reacted strongly to that, but she just puts her head on his shoulder, which I think makes it more complex. It’s acceptance. She knows he’s been a piss-poor dad, but she’s not vilifying him.

The dance part—I never danced with my dad, I don’t think—but he thinks he danced with her and it was actually her cousin. And he goes, “Oh really?” and she says, “Yeah, I wasn’t even there.” And then he tries to make it better and he can’t.

I don’t think I write villains. I write good people that make poor choices.

SW: Yeah, even the cousin is not out-and-out bad. He’s obviously horrible to his girlfriend, but he has so much tenderness towards your character.

SZ: That character was based on my uncle, who was like a father-figure to me. He didn’t beat up on his girlfriend [as the cousin in the movie does], but he made some stupid choice in his life. And we don’t see each other as often as we used to. I really wrestled with that when I was writing the story.

The scene where her and her cousin are drawing on the magazine, defiling the woman’s picture, drawing mustaches on her—my uncle used to do that, when I was 10 or 11. And that was an age where girls are starting to think about self-esteem a lot, and beauty a lot. I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself at 13—all the horrible things I heard from girls in the hallway, about how I looked. I was getting lambasted with insults online. I’m surprised that I didn’t turn into a completely hateful person because of that. And my uncle would get my grandmother’s women’s product magazines, and he would flip to the pages of models and draw zits coming out and black out the teeth and give them unibrows. He’d give them to me and say, “I want you to see that all this stuff is photo-shopped. It’s makeup, it’s not real. It’s not what women look like every day.” When I got older, I realized it was more profound than drawing a goofy face on a picture. It was a gesture of care. I thought it was a good thing to put in the film.

I think people, because of the technical issues in the film, they don’t even want to try [to analyze the film]. The internal mic—you had to be like making out with it [to hear it]. It was a road mic that fastened to the camera, it wouldn’t pick up anything more than an inch away. Someone else brought a mic, but it was really fuzzy, you had to clip it onto the DSLR.

SW: The only technical flaw that perplexed me a little bit, because I couldn’t tell if it was left in for stylistic reasons or reflected budget limitations, was that in the last two scenes, there are extremely long pauses between the characters’ responses.

SZ: The actors weren’t available after a certain date, and I still needed some shots. The scene of me reading under a blanket, that’s me in my house. I took the audio from the other scenes and used them as voice-overs, so it looked like I was overhearing [my parents] talking. Also, I couldn’t find the same dress I’d been wearing [when I come out of the bedroom], so I shot under the blanket, so you couldn’t see my clothes. And then the next scene where I’m mocking my mother, I’m bending down so they can’t see the clothes I’m wearing, so the continuity wasn’t obvious. Could you tell?

SW: Only because in the back-to-back point-of-view shots, one mic is fuzzy and the other isn’t. But I’ve seen that in dozens of indie films.

SZ: My poor boyfriend. He works at a radio station. I had him do the sound for me with Audacity and Audition. We tried so hard. Even in “Well Water,” during the playground scene, there’s someone hitting a baseball, way at the other side of the park that you kind of hear, and there’s an airplane noise that we tried to take out but we couldn’t.

SW: I didn’t mind that. It’s more real to me. It reminds me that it was shot in real time. Speaking of “Well Water,” was that autobiographical as well?

SZ: It was based on life experiences I’ve had, in relationships.

SW: What I loved about “Well Water” is, you know the characters are young but you don’t know how young, right off the bat. They could be 20, they could be 28. And you don’t know their financial situation. So when they looked at houses at the beginning, I thought they were yuppies. And then it slowly peels back and lets you know that they’re not even out of college, and they’re virgins.

SZ: Yeah. And I wanted to show that she wants grown-up things. She wants sex so badly, yet she still has to listen to her mom, when her mom says “You have to go to this wedding.” They can barely make their own decisions.

Similarly, when Ben is trying to work the lawnmower, his dad says, “Here, let me help you,” and Ben says, “No, let me do it, I know what I’m doing.” But he doesn’t; he gives up.

SW: You kind of feel for both characters in that scene. Everyone knows what it feels like to be patronized by a parent, but you also understand the dad’s frustration with the son’s stubbornness.

SZ: Right.

SW: Have you shown the films at any festivals or old-school movie theaters?

SZ: “Well Water” was put in one festival. It got into Los Angeles CineFest. It was a finalist, I’m not sure what that means. I showed it at the Somerville Theatre, but you have to pay $50 for each screening. I’m in a better place financially now than when I made it, but I don’t wanna keep spending that over and over. The first few times I brought in decent audiences. I had one where no one showed up at all, even though people on Facebook said they would come.

I hosted a screening in Providence at the library and only one guy showed up. He was like 80 years-old, and it was just me and him and my long-suffering boyfriend. And the guy was such an asshole! My boyfriend just stood there while I ripped this dude apart. He’s used to it, he’s seen me go off, but this guy was saying shit like, “I got lost in it,” and I said, “OK, well god forbid you watch something that makes you do a little intellectual digging.” And he said, “I’ve seen films at youth festivals that are more advanced than this.” I said, “Have you considered that those kids have parents that gave them $6,000 to make the movie?”

Old people now, they grew up when experimental art was booming. They lined up to buy “Sgt. Pepper” and “Pet Sounds,” they read Vonnegut, they saw Bergman and Cassavetes on the big screen, and they hold up the ‘60s and ‘70s as this golden age, like “They don’t make ‘em like this any more.” And yet when they see trailblazers now, they’re like “It shouldn’t be like this.” I don’t understand.

SW: It could be people that are snobs about film vs. digital. They’ll forgive a certain primitive quality to film—almost like the difference between vinyl and CD. People like the pops and cracks on a record, they think it’s a thing of beauty, whereas they hate how easily CDs break, and how cumbersome they are. And I like records, but I kind of never had that snobbery about CDs. I think some of that has carried over to film purists, especially if they’re that old; they dismiss digital cameras as lazy. They’d probably despise “Tangerine” since it was shot on a cellphone.

SZ: And that looked really good! I couldn’t believe it was shot on a cellphone.

SW: The fact that you made a fucking movie—it’s easier said than done.

SZ: It’s a mentality of “You’ve got to wait ’til you have everything.” How many great films have been lost because people felt shamed into not doing them?

I admit I was a complete asshole during “Mouse,” but I was the director, editor, writer, actor. I was very stressed out. There was one time it was 90 degrees out, I had no car, my boyfriend was on vacation and I was left out [in a parking lot] with 50 pounds of equipment. I just lost it. I called a friend and I was like, “No one fucking helps me,” on her voicemail. She was sleeping. She woke up and was really upset. I felt so bad. At that point, my own wishes were stressing me out.

I was aware of my limitations on that film. Could I have been a teeny bit more careful, could I have waited to release it? Maybe. But I was feeling depressed at the time and I felt like I really needed to put something out, so that I could feel good. It’s a really dangerous cycle. That’s why I was rude and demanding. But the actors knew this wasn’t going to be a five-star Hollywood film.

For “Well Water,” I had more of a crew. I had a cinematographer. It took three days to shoot. Still, my friends and I had to take a train with a tripod. I paid for catering, I paid the actors. Sometimes the actors took turns filming. I had people drop out. Three people’s aunts died. One of my friends got mad at me. Working with your friends can be a slippery slope.

Then, “Mouse” got taken off of Prime because not enough people were watching it. I think it was on there for maybe a year. I was really upset.

I think I made more money at screenings than Amazon. The premiere was free admission but I made like $200 in donations. It was also streaming on OPPRIME.tv, and I think you get like twenty-five cents a screening, depending on how many minutes it’s watched for.

SW: I truly believe that the worst thing for the arts right now–beyond shoddy distribution–is low attention span among viewers. You can’t combat that. You can have a resurgence of a type of film or music, but you can’t wage a war on people’s attention spans.

Of course, if you’re showing your art to friends and loved ones, they’re kind of obligated to watch it, for better or worse. Have you watched “Mouse” with your parents?

SZ: I watched both films with my mother. She was moved to tears by “Well Water.” She said, “I can hear you in these lines.” For “Mouse,” I think she was initially worried that people would see certain things and think I’d taken them directly from life. Sometimes she’ll say, “It’s good, it’s good,” but she looks a little sad, because…she knows.

My dad saw “Well Water” a few years ago and could tell it was about me and my boyfriend. He said, “Riveting,” but he was laughing when he said it, so I was like “Fuck you.”

SW: Tell me about some of your upcoming projects.

SZ: I have my two TV pilots in the works. I have a Zoom one and a different one, where production’s kind of halted. We had finished Episode One just before the schools closed–we shot the last scene in a school. I’ve written seven out of eight episodes.

A scene from Zeroonian’s forthcoming online show “One Plus One is Two.”

For the pilot, we rented an old-style house from VRBO, and there were roaches in it, crawling on the actors! And the neighbors didn’t know we were filming, they were upset all these cars were in the street. There was a kid playing trumpet [in the background] the whole time.

SW: What inspired “One Plus One”?

SZ: I was inspired growing up by my brother’s struggle with his disability. I have ADHD myself. There are a lot of problems even today with special education and disability rights. But the pilot really focuses on [the lead character] Marielle’s personal/inner life.

All I can say about the show is that there will be many moments of reckoning for the characters and that they’re not gonna do the 180 you would expect them to do, after realizing they’ve made questionable choices in life. Season 1 ends on a cliffhanger and it will leave you with a sense of incompleteness, in the sense that you will want more.

For the Zoom “Sandbox Police” show, [my character] Flynn is probably a little more callous and has more of a mean streak than I do. She also is a social worker, which just added a funny layer of irony to her character. She is fierce, and is the driving force behind the show. We share a lot of the same philosophies when it comes to creative control and censorship.

“Sandbox Police”

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