After claims of problems on ‘SMILF’ set, Frankie Shaw says she’ll ‘do better’
“SMILF” showrunner and star Frankie Shaw had plenty to celebrate after wrapping the second season of her Boston-set Showtime dramedy in September. She had successfully — and proudly — moved production of the show from Los Angeles to Boston. She’d taken the story, which follows the complicated life of Southie single mom Bridgette Bird, and given it new layers. She’d also made good on a promise to herself that 50 percent of her crew would be women.
But now, as Shaw prepares for her show’s season premiere on Jan. 20, she is also addressing allegations disclosed last month by The Hollywood Reporter, which described “a production plagued by allegations of abusive behavior and violations of industry rules.” Speaking for the first time since the publication of that Dec. 17 story, Shaw addressed complaints about her supervision of the show, in phone interviews and by e-mail.
Shaw, who grew up in Brookline and South Boston, was contrite in her interviews with the Globe, offered her own context, and promised to “do better.” She attributed some of the issues raised in the story to her own inexperience managing the cast and crew of a TV series even as she shouldered the lead role.
“I’m learning more and more about management and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to learn these lessons so early in my career,” she said, via e-mail Thursday. “I’m going to continue to do everything I can to ensure the entire team feels seen and heard.”
The Hollywood Reporter detailed complaints about the way Shaw managed actress Samara Weaving’s nude and sex scenes for the show. Citing “several sources,” it also said there were complaints that “writers of color were put in different rooms from Caucasian writers and felt that their ideas were exploited without pay or credit.”
ABC Studios, which produces “SMILF” with Showtime, is still investigating the claims, but the series will resume on schedule next week. This season features guest stars such as Melanie Griffith and Stormy Daniels. Nine of the 10 episodes were directed by women, including one by Kerry Washington.
“SMILF” began as a short film made for $3,000. The nine-minute story, about a single mom who tries to restart her sex life, starred then-single mom Shaw and “Silicon Valley” actor Thomas Middleditch. It won a short-film prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.
Two years later, the television production moved forward quickly. That May, “SMILF” was green-lit as a coproduction of Showtime and ABC Signature. Filming began in August 2017, and Season 1 premiered that November. That meant Shaw, who’d never worked in a television writers’ room, was put in charge of a cast and crew of more than 200 people. The cast included Shaw as Bird and Rosie O’Donnell as her character’s mother.
Shaw spoke to the Globe of the learning curve she’s experienced. She said that after Season 2 wrapped, months before The Hollywood Reporter story was published, she’d bought management books recommended by Harvard Business School because she wanted to better understand leadership.
The Hollywood Reporter story alleged that during Season 1, Weaving objected to doing a nude scene. The story, citing an unnamed source, said Shaw responded by pulling her into a trailer and lifting her own shirt to question why the actress would be uncomfortable.
Shaw said she did lift her own shirt while she and Weaving were in a makeup trailer. She said her intention was to reassure Weaving that she understood the discomfort involved in a nude scene. Shaw was trying to bond with Weaving as an actress, not thinking about how, as a showrunner, she was also Weaving’s boss, she said.
Elaborating via e-mail, she wrote: “When I started the show two and a half years ago, I actually didn’t know that you can’t ask an actor what they’re comfortable doing in a sex scene. I hadn’t had the management training on the specific rules, I only knew what I personally would want as an actress. . . . I only just found out about her discomfort during season one after season two wrapped. I was trying to make her feel comfortable and I feel terrible that I unintentionally did the opposite.”
A spokesman for Weaving on Thursday did not respond to a request for comment.
Another incident detailed by The Hollywood Reporter involved a visual monitor that was turned on during a Season 2 sex scene between Weaving and Miguel Gomez, who plays Bird’s ex, that was supposed to be filmed on a closed set. Leaving the monitor on meant that crew members not involved in shooting the scene could watch it.
Shaw responded: “Even though I wasn’t directing the sex scene nor present on set when it was being shot, I take responsibility for the fact that the actress felt uncomfortable when the wrong monitor was turned on.”
As for the complaints about the writers’ room being racially divided, Shaw said by e-mail: “The writers chose their own offices — I did not assign the writers their offices. If anyone ever felt left out, it was certainly never my intention.” She said the complaint surprised her because one of her goals for the show’s second season was for a more inclusive, diverse staff.
“Over a third of writers credited on scripts for Season 2 are women of color — their voices and contributions are vital to the storytelling,” she said.
Responding to another complaint, she also said she is learning the best way to encourage ideas from her staff.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “multiple staffers” made complaints to the Writers Guild of America about the issues, but it said none had filed a grievance. A spokesman for the Writers Guild of America West declined to comment to the Globe.
Michael London, an executive producer on the show who has known Shaw since 2014, said she is learning to delegate, which will help her as a manager. He said Shaw was writing, starring in, and sometimes directing “SMILF,” and that she also put herself at the front of all decisions regarding production because of her passion for the product. He said he sees this experience as “another step in her evolution.”
Gary Levine, copresident of entertainment for Showtime, said the new season of “SMILF” underscores why Showtime was so interested in Shaw’s voice to begin with, citing an episode that focuses on domestic workers and another that sets the cast in a Western, where the women characters are gunslingers and the men wait for them at home.
He compared Shaw — who is in talks to pen an adaptation of “The Bell Jar” for Showtime — to Red Sox star Mookie Betts in terms of her range of skills. “She’s our five-tool player,” he said.
Showtime hasn’t officially ordered a third season of “SMILF” yet, but Shaw said she’s already been to Ireland to scout locations, and that she’s assembling a writers’ room that will include the experienced team of Jeanette Collins and Mimi Friedman, known for HBO’s “Getting On” and “Big Love,” as well as “In Living Color.”
Mostly, Shaw said, she hopes her mistakes — and the publicity surrounding them — do not detract from what she hopes the show will deliver.
“I will take the lessons, and the lessons will be learned,” she said, adding, “I’m so proud of this season of television that tells stories of the underrepresented, and of this blue-collar family in Southie, stories that represent Boston and mother-daughter relationships and co-parenting. And I’m in full open-hearted gratitude to everybody who worked on them.”