Although director Oran Zegman only graduated from the AFI Conservatory in 2018, she is well on her way toward making a name for herself in Hollywood. Zegman, who grew up in Tel Aviv, first launched her career as an actress in film, TV and theater. She graduated from the Beit-Zvi School for the Performing Arts before receiving a two-year scholarship to study directing at AFI.
Her AFI short thesis film MARRIAGE MATERIAL — the first musical ever created by an AFI Fellow — captivated audiences at AFI EXPO — where Fox Searchlight acquired the rights — and was a finalist for the 46th annual Student Academy Awards in 2019. She recently struck a deal to adapt MARRIAGE MATERIAL into a series for Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s new company’s Quibi (short for “quick bites”), a platform which is dedicated to bringing premium, episodic content to mobile screens and is set to launch next year. She joins veteran filmmakers, including Jason Blum, Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi, who have all signed on to direct projects for Quibi, and will own the rights to the full-length versions of their work after two years.
Her short stars Gwen Hollander as Leah, a young woman who, after being rejected by her boyfriend, checks herself into the “Late Blooming Bride” retreat, which prides itself on transforming less-than-perfect women into “marriage material.” With her dry humor counterbalancing Leah’s despondency, Zegman has created a satirical portrait of a young woman struggling to reconcile her alpha personality with her desire to mold herself into the perfect partner.
AFI spoke with her about producing the first AFI Conservatory musical, her short being acquired by Fox Searchlight and landing a development deal with Quibi.
AFI: Where did the idea for MARRIAGE MATERIAL come from?
OZ: I originally came up with an idea for a musical that was an impossible love story between a vet and a butcher. When AFI green-lit this story, I was caught off guard. I didn’t think it would happen because no one had done an AFI musical ever. I tried to write the story all summer, but I hit a roadblock. Then I broke up with my boyfriend. I was 34 and feeling like I wish there was a place I could go or a yenta who could teach me what I was doing wrong.
I’m from Israel, and I grew up with the notion that if you’re past your thirties and you’re still not married, then something must be wrong with you. The stress from society and family really sinks in at the end of the day. I felt myself acting out of pressure and not who I really was. I found myself changing for people who I was dating. How to fit into this marriage material box is a question that I’ve been trying to answer for a long time.
AFI: MARRIAGE MATERIAL is AFI’s first musical ever. Did you face any unusual hurdles compared with other Fellows?
OZ: AFI definitely felt like part of the team. The Conservatory realized we were trying to do something new and different, so they let us raise more money than usual. Typically, the norm is 65K with an extension of 75K and, pretty much from the beginning, we said we couldn’t do the film for 75K. We asked if we could do it for 85K, and AFI agreed to reopen their agreement with SAG to approve the new budget. I also knew that the timelines with this project would be tough and that we would need a lot of rehearsals. AFI gave us a lot of space for auditions, especially for the chorus where we ended up using five rooms at the same time.
AFI: What was the extra 10K for in terms of the budget?
OZ: It really came down to the location, which was very expensive, and also the music. We shot it in Villa del Sol in Sierra Madre. LEGALLY BLONDE and a lot of other movies have shot there. We get only 6 days to shoot, and we had to find a place where we could film the entire project without any company moves. It was super expensive, but my producer and I begged for four months to get the location, and it also took a quarter of our budget.
The music was also a lot of money because I made a promise to my composer, Ben Zeadman. When I met him, he said, “you can’t afford me, but I love this story and I will do it if you promise me that you will only use live orchestral music.” I made the promise, and soon after came to regret it because it cost me a fortune.
AFI: Did you write all the musical numbers yourself or bring on a lyricist?
OZ: I co-wrote the lyrics with Ben. We took turns and went back and forth in the writing process. It was like a dance. Out of it came a really great collaboration, and he’s now working on the series adaptation with me as well.
AFI: What was the casting process like? How did you discover Gwen Hollander as your lead?
OZ: I met an actress who was recommended to me by Chris Schwartz [the AFI Manager of the Conservatory] , and she really wanted to do the role. After 10 minutes of talking, I said, “Girl, you are way too pretty. I’m so sorry because I know you’re incredibly talented.” To her credit, she said to me, “I think I have the perfect person for you.” She showed me a photo of Gwen on Instagram, and I could see all of the songs she’d done since she’s a musical theater actress. As soon as I saw her, I knew she would be the one to play the lead.
When we cast the chorus, we kind of turned AFI into a Broadway studio with actors walking around with numbers on them and people stretching in the hallways. It looked like we were doing auditions for A CHORUS LINE. I think we saw over 300 girls.
AFI: One of the characters you created is a Jewish matchmaker named Yenta who takes Leah under her wing. How has being from Tel Aviv informed your work?
OZ: Yenta is a mix of my grandmas and aunts. It’s supposed to be a representation of all the “Jewish moms” in my life. She represents the pressure to get married that is very dominant in Jewish culture. I just came back from a retreat for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles leadership program with a bunch of women in their thirties who are still single, and the stories I heard were very similar to my own.
I think that the stress to get married really prevents you from finding the one actually. Being in LA for two years and making this movie allowed me to be myself and not to chase this goal.
AFI: What kind of social commentary were you striving for in the end where Leah has to lose her voice to be 100% “marriage material,” and what message do you hope audiences take away from your film?
OZ: To me, the message is that it’s not worth sacrificing your own voice. And no relationship and no biological ticking clock and no Jewish mom or dad are worth you becoming someone that you’re not or muting you. In relationships we do make sacrifices, but to what extent? I know so many women and, even a lot of men, who really respond to the film and feel like they’re the black sheep in their family. Nothing good can come when you’re compromising and when you’re not truthful to yourself.
AFI: How were you first introduced to Quibi?
OZ: Quibi was pitching their idea to agencies around town and they connected with my manager, who suggested that maybe my short could be a new Quibi series. MARRIAGE MATERIAL got me my manager who also represents actress Zosia Mamet, and that’s how she came on board the project. Quibi heard about it and knew that Zosia was attached. We all met and talked through ideas for how we could make it into a series. Then they said that they would have Jeffrey Katzenberg watch it and get back to us. I figured I’d probably hear from them in another three months, but the next morning they called and said that Katzenberg loved it and wanted to develop it as a series.
We’re making nine episodes that I’m writing and directing. Each episode is anywhere from six to 10 minutes and will have a musical number. I’m also working with Ben Zeadman on the music again who is incredibly talented and my partner for life.
AFI: How did Fox Searchlight acquire the short film rights to MARRIAGE MATERIAL?
OZ: Fox Searchlight actually saw the movie at AFI EXPO. They reached out to me and said they wanted to acquire the short because they have this platform called Fox Searchlight Shorts where they present one short every month. They promote up-and-coming filmmakers and bring them into the Fox Searchlight family to consider other projects that they might do together. Luckily, Quibi was very supportive of me pursuing the Fox Searchlight deal for the short at the same time as the Quibi deal for the series adaptation.
AFI: Can you tell me a little bit about your debut feature film that you’re developing right now?
OZ: It’s called THE MITZVAH PROJECT. It’s a dramedy set in South Florida in the nineties, and it follows a kid named Trouble during her Bat Mitzvah year. It’s LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE meets EIGHTH GRADE meets NOW AND THEN.
AFI: What other artists or stories are inspiring you these days? Whose work influences your own?
OZ: Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER was one of our biggest inspirations. I love his aesthetic and the film’s message, tone and visual language. I adore everything that he’s doing. I also love musical director Baz Luhrmann, and Sofia Coppola is another of my favorite directors. So those three are probably my biggest influences as a filmmaker.