Stephanie Zari's Path to Writing and Directing Zebra Girl

Written by Justine Owens and Avery Faeth

Stephanie Zari's Path to Writing and Directing Zebra Girl feature image

Stephanie’s journey began in the vibrant acting scene of Toronto, where she garnered a deep understanding of screenplays, character analysis, and storytelling structures. However, the desire to write and tell her own stories compelled her to write her first short-form scripts. From there, she began exploring feature films as not only a writer but also a director.

Embarking on the journey from crafting short films to diving into the vast realms of feature films as director and writer can be as daunting as it is thrilling.

Stephanie’s career development took a huge step forward with the supplement of education. She attended part-time film school while participating in masterclasses and taking screenwriting courses from John Truby. She embarked on most of these opportunities in the era before online learning and earned an appreciation for the importance of in-person courses for networking.

Doing courses in person was key at the time for me to really build my network … I would encourage this as much as possible … even if it’s your local am-dram!

Throughout her career, Stephanie has found her own tool to tackle the universal challenge of getting projects off the ground - the power of collaboration. Whether it involves co-writing, co-producing, or engaging in the creative process with other professionals like script consultants, finding and forging the right alliances has been a crucial theme in her twenty-year journey.

It's not just about crafting stories; it's about crafting stories together, recognizing the symbiotic relationship that breathes life into our scripts. Because even if you write alone, eventually someone you trust will need to read it, and finding that person or tribe is key.

Developing and Directing Zebra Girl

Zebra Girl marks Stephanie’s feature directorial debut, a project adapted from the critically acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival one-woman show Catherine & Anita performed by Sarah Roy. Stephanie also developed the screen story and served as co-producer.

Catherine & Anita initially came about when Roy, inspired by Cush Jumbo's one-woman show, decided to create her own solo performance with New York playwright Derek Ahonen. The show's success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival led to its adaptation for the screen, with Ahonen drafting the initial screenplay. Seeking a director who could tell her story with a distinctly female perspective, Roy chose Stephanie, and together they undertook the complex task of translating the play into a film.

As a filmmaker and abuse survivor, the story resonated with me deeply and we boldly, yet carefully set out to balance dark themes with comedic elements, addressing sensitive subject matter with respect and thorough research, speaking with psychologists and reading memoirs.

The non-linear structure of the script was a challenge that we unraveled and put back together several times, trying to make sense of a fragmented mind and how best to represent that on screen … We aimed to push the boundaries on mental health representation on screen, unapologetically and through a female lens, challenging stereotypes that we knew would potentially polarize viewers and critics …

Even having a test screening before the final cut, which had positive feedback, could not have prepared us for how divisive a reaction the film would generate. Ultimately, the hope with Zebra Girl was to portray the main character through her eyes, and not just as a victim but as someone striving for a better life - even if she faces a tragic end.

A notable challenge Stephanie faced as a director was visually representing the protagonist's psychosis. She devised a unique map of camera techniques and a color palette that reflected the character's personality and struggles, aptly dubbed "Disney gone wrong." Working closely with cinematographer Catherine Derry, they fine-tuned these visual concepts to best underscore the film's distinctive perspective.

Stephanie also talked about the importance of respect between the cast and crew on set:

Photo from Zebra Girl

Working on such heavy subject matter can take a psychological toll, so the support of a tight-knit crew, supportive cast, and a sense of trust and camaraderie on set were crucial. As Sarah and I were making our first feature film together (as were many of the crew), we listened to each others’ needs and suggestions and were fortunate to navigate … the issues.

The film premiered in UK cinemas in May 2021 and is now globally available on major streaming platforms. It received a nomination for Best Thriller at the UK 2022 National Film Awards and has secured several indie awards.

Watch Zebra Girl on Amazon Prime Video

Pitching, Authenticity, and Resilience

When it comes to pitching, Stephanie has learned that it’s equally important to showcase the person behind the story as it is to present a compelling narrative. In those nerve-wracking pitch meetings, she finds solace in a familiar performer's trick—stepping into her "circle of confidence" and letting authenticity and passion shine through.

Executives and producers aren't just seeking a great story; they're seeking a storyteller with a unique voice and vision. So, I make it personal. I make it about not just the plot but the individuality I bring to the table, how the story resonates with me, and why. This approach creates a pitch that's not easily forgotten – one that resonates beyond the logline.

She also emphasizes the importance of connection, noting that executives and producers are just as eager to discover the next great story. If you can connect with them on a human level and show your true self, they may open themselves to collaboration even if it isn’t on the initial project you pitched.

In the ever-evolving landscape of the film industry, she recognizes one constant: the enduring appeal of personal storytelling. She’s learned that crafting a feature script with the best chances of being made involves tapping into her own experiences, making the story hers alone. A personal perspective enables a deeper exploration of universally resonant themes.

While the industry may shift like sand, the authenticity of a genuinely human story remains a beacon – in whatever genre you’re writing in. So, I write stories that feel personal and authentic. I know that even if it doesn’t get made, I wrote it because it connected with me on a deep level and normally I learn something about myself and grow as a person with each one that I’ve written and kept honing my voice.

And when it comes to perseverance, Stephanie says that the course of filmmaking is often an unpredictable path. She works to stay true to the vision she holds for the stories she wants to tell in the face of setbacks and changes, all while remaining adaptable and open to collaboration – no small feat.

Making films is like being on a battlefield and you need to be in it for the long haul as it can get very bloody. You need a willingness to persist in the ever-changing landscape with a big dollop of resilience to keep on your creative journey.

Beyond Zebra Girl

Since Zebra Girl, Stephanie has created, executive produced, and directed an interactive comedy horror feature film tailored for TikTok, which was commissioned by the mobile storytelling app Whatifi and written by Abigail Blackmore. She has also taken the helm of the beloved UK children's TV show The Dumping Ground.

Currently, she is developing three projects under her banner, Forge Films, collaborating with both established and emerging UK female writers. Together they tell a range of stories with a comic twist, from an absurdist existential horror, to an off-beat body swap romance, to an adaptation of the nonfiction novel How to Create the Perfect Wife. The book, by acclaimed historian and journalist Wendy Moore, recounts the remarkable true story that inspired Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

The dumping ground s10 trailer index

As a director, I want to craft stories that both entertain and resonate on a deep, introspective level. I’m interested in working and collaborating with like-minded writers with the goal of shattering conventional norms and championing underrepresented stories. As Barbie showed us loud and clear last year – this is what we're made for! – hopefully, the studios and execs really start to listen.

Stephanie Zari

Stephanie was a Semifinalist in Shore Scripts’ 2016 Feature Contest with her script In Our Blood. In 2021, she co-wrote and directed the feature film Zebra Girl, produced by 19th Street Productions and distributed by Bohemian Media. The film stars Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey, Black Mirror, Weekend), Jade Anouka (Cleaning Up, His Dark Materials), and Sarah Roy (Glue).

Shore Scripts Logo

This article was produced in collaboration with Shore Scripts.