Sela Shiloni

Vanessa and Laura Marano Tell Us Why They Fought To Make Their Darkest Project Yet

'This is a topic that affects us, and no wants to talk about it'

By Vanessa and Laura Marano

Twelve years ago, Alyson Noël wrote Saving Zoë — a book that included the social staples of that time: VHS tapes, emoji-less text messages, and MySpace. Remember MySpace? In 2007, it was what every teen was talking about; and yet, for many teens today, the site is more of a legend than a distant memory. With all these seemingly archaic cultural characteristics, one would think the story found in Saving Zoë would feel dated and far away. On the contrary, it is more relevant now than ever before. That’s the most striking part of our journey with this incredible book-turned-movie: Over a decade later, Saving Zoë isn’t just culturally appropriate — it’s needed.

At its core, Saving Zoë is about grief. It is a heart-wrenching love story between two sisters, one dead and one living in the other’s shadow. We were 11 and 14 when we first read it (our mother, Ellen Marano, was slightly older but who really cares about age?). We cried, we laughed, but more importantly, we turned inward and reflected on ourselves. Obviously, as two sisters reading the book, it hit home and it hit hard; however, there was another aspect of the story that haunted us long after we finished reading.

The story discusses a subject that we were neither educated about nor even aware of; a subject that a lot of people experience, yet may not be able to put a name to it; a subject called online sexual exploitation.

Saving Zoë follows Echo, a freshman trying to navigate her first year of high school while still dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. Zoë, her older sister, was murdered a year before our story starts — and as it turns out, there’s more to Zoë’s death than meets the eye. After Echo discovers her sister’s diary, she finds herself sucked into a world of darkness she never knew existed. Multiple characters find themselves involved in circumstances where, without their consent, someone captured videos and pictures of them in sexually compromising situations and used those images against them. And as we moved forward with optioning the book, we had two challenges: one, representing this issue appropriately and accurately, and two, finding a way to convince people to let us put this issue on-screen.

Noël showed adolescence through a darker lens than most of the other YA novels we had read. Her teens were lonely and introverted, with most of them overwhelmingly feeling that the adults in their lives did not have the capability to help them. It was the loneliness and desperation masqueraded as boredom that pushed Zoë into situations that ultimately led to her murder. Murder, drugs, online sexual exploitation — these were not the subjects that most studios and production companies had in mind when talking about YA. We were told time after time that the story was too dark for teens to relate to, that teens, especially young girls, were looking for lighter, more digestible content. As young teen girls, we heavily disagreed. That motivated us to just keep going.

Studio71

The most frustrating part of this particular process was not necessarily being told what our age group wanted by people who were most certainly not in our age group (although that did irk us); it was that we felt this story could start a conversation most teenagers needed to have, a conversation that would consist of safe online etiquette and even revelations from survivors who hadn’t fully come to terms with their experiences and the effects. Every survivor of online sexual exploitation has a different story, and so many of them involved perpetrators they knew or thought they knew. We were (and still are) convinced that this story could not only educate people about an issue that is hardly discussed, but it could also prevent further victims, and hopefully start a much-needed conversation between governments and tech companies. The more we talked about this issue, the more passionate we became. So, why was everyone else so scared to talk about it?

It didn't matter to us. We just kept moving forward. We got our director Jeff Hunt onboard because of how horrified he was of the YA novel, which he had read as if it were a thriller. He got our screenwriters, LeeAnne and Brian Adams, to sign on after they read the book and shared similar sentiments. We spent almost two years workshopping the script, where everyone put quite a bit of their time and energy knowing at that point, we were all working for free (LeeAnne and Brian especially). We knew it was going to be told in a mature way, but we still wanted young people watching to relate to it and feel seen. We knew it was dark, but we also knew that wouldn’t scare our peers away. 2017 rolled around, and sure enough, our script was ready to send out.

In 2017, something was changing in the air, especially in the YA space. Teens didn’t just watch darker content — they craved it. Studios began taking note, and for the first time, we found multiple people interested in making our movie. We met with Michael Schreiber, president of the company Studio71, and his passion for our project blew us away. We had been pitching the movie for 10 years, and all of a sudden, we had a meeting in April and went into production in July. For those who don’t know this world, let us assure you, that is unbelievably fast.

The fast pace of production didn't stop there. We shot the film in 15 days, edited it in three weeks, and mixed it for a short seven days. It was hectic, but we were thrilled. After 10 long years we had finally gotten the film produced, and we were finally going to get the chance to share the story that we were so passionate about with the world.

Then, we faced the challenge of finding a distributor. Like a broken record, we kept hearing time and time again about how there was no place in the YA space for a film like this. Yes, it was well done. Yes, it was a gripping story. Yes, it was a subject that needed light to be shed upon it. But teen girls want fluff, people told us, and Saving Zoë was anything but fluff. We were back to square one.

It wasn't until Blue Fox Entertainment saw the film that everything changed. One of the studio executives found himself discussing the project with his niece, and right away she recounted reading Saving Zoë as a teenager. Her passion for the book echoed our sentiments exactly. She told her uncle just how special and powerful the story was to her. And just like that, after more than a decade of being told what young women want to watch, a young woman's belief in the project is the reason it finally debuted in theaters and on VOD on July 12th.

Studio71

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is estimated to be a 99 billion dollar industry worldwide. Online sexual exploitation is a huge fragment of that number. Equality Now, a human rights organization with whom we partnered on the film, has been fighting to change laws and spread awareness about this subject for years. This includes bringing together tech companies, governments, civil society, and survivors to find survivor-centered solutions to the issue of online sexual exploitation. When we originally showed Saving Zoë to Equality Now, their excitement for the project transcended our greatest hopes. They believed in the project as much as we did. When we asked why, they said it was because of the audience it was made for: young women. Young women have the power to change the world. Young women can use their voices to speak up about subjects that are important to them, no matter how difficult it may seem. Women, of all ages, make up 94% of the victims of sexual exploitation.

This is a topic that affects us, and no wants to talk about it. That only motivates us to try and talk about it more. We hope that Saving Zoë will motivate others to do the same. Because at the end of the day, we don't just want stories that are light, fluffy, and easy to digest. We want stories that matter — that speak about subjects that impact our lives.

Twelve years ago, Alyson Noël wrote a book that changed our lives. It showed us just how strong young women can be. We hope our film moves you the same way her book moved us all those years ago.