There is a scene at the beginning of Best Thing You’ll Ever Do, a four-part web series created by Monica West and directed by Catherine Fordham, where the protagonist, a young New Yorker named Mae, finishes a long day of working two physically demanding jobs only to come home and find that she’s been locked out of her apartment. She crawls into a ball and sleeps on the floor in the hallway.
That’s where Best Thing You’ll Ever Do ends its similarity to the long list of shows about struggling twenty- or thirty-somethings in New York City. Within a tightly edited montage, Mae gets up, moves to California, and suddenly finds herself with a husband, a job, and a house — an identifiable version of what Americans love to call “it all.” That’s also when the show takes off and begins to discuss a topic that is as fraught and complex as it is necessary. In short, people start asking Mae when she’s having a baby. It’s a common scenario to many of us; if you’re a woman over thirty, actual strangers feel entitled to ask about your plans for motherhood and to comment on the tenuous state of your ovaries. But what if you’re not ready to have a baby? What is you have other goals to pursue before you apply yourself to the Herculean task of motherhood? What if you have made a fulfilling life for yourself and, well, you just don’t want to become a mother at all?
Best Thing You’ll Ever Do asks these questions with a deft touch, and I was excited to talk with West (creator/writer/producer/Mae) and Fordham (director/producer) about tackling this too-often taboo subject. We also spoke about shooting their first web series on two coasts, redefining success, and the unexpected response they’ve heard from women in their 70s.
Carrie Mullins: Many of the best series take a familiar story arc and flip them on their heads. Your show does this by taking the setup of “young person leaves their crappy existence in NYC to follow a startup dream on the West Coast” but, instead of the roadblock being a lack of funding or interest in her company, Mae must confront motherhood. Can you talk a little about how you conceived (no pun intended) the show?
Catherine Fordham: Since Monica is the writer/creator, I’ll leave that question to her!
Monica West: This is a great question (and pun) — thank you. The concept for Best Thing You’ll Ever Do came in response to something that kept happening to me after I got engaged. Loved ones and total strangers started asking me: “When are you going to have a baby?” And I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised? But the question hit me like a pie in the face. I’d spent my 20s and early 30s intensely pursuing my career as an actress. When I turned 34, I finally started getting offered some excellent roles and opportunities. For example in Chicago at Lookingglass Theatre Company, I originated the role of Ilse in Eastland — as a smart, funny, sensual, loving person faced with a difficult decision — a wonderfully whole woman character. And I had the opportunity to be a part of two action films — a dream of mine! I played an archaeologist searching the last haul of Sir Francis Drake in an adventure film that shot in five countries, complete with car chases, explosions, and people jumping out of helicopters! And Catherine directed me in a short film she wrote, Consommé, where I played a woman who is sexually assaulted and fights back, ultimately destroying her attacker. On top of all of this, I met my husband! So in my mid-30s I felt like my life was finally coming together and then all of the sudden this baby question hits me. I started to think that a lot of women in our generation must feel this way: working so hard to see their dreams coming true and then laying awake at night worrying about having to give it all up or even wanting to give it all up to have a baby.
CM: As a married woman of child-bearing age, I found myself inwardly cheering at so many moments — but I think everyone can benefit from such a frank discussion of motherhood. Women have made inroads towards being “more” than mothers, but there is still the expectation that if we do succeed it’s in addition to motherhood — and women who don’t want to be mothers are taboo. As a filmmaker, how do you go about dealing with this complex, and sensitive, topic?
MW: I think for me, the best way to handle that delicate conversation is to write honestly about things that I think about when considering motherhood and about things that people have said to me about motherhood or the decision to remain child-free. In the 4th episode of Best Thing, Mae has a conversation with a grandmother who opens up about her regret over giving up her career to have children. In the 5th episode, Mae will have a conversation with a woman who is happily childfree and talks about the judgment she feels from other people, especially working-moms, who feel that as a working-woman she has it easier than they do. As far as the expectation of success in addition to motherhood, I think that’s a very important part of the conversation. I have great respect and am deeply thankful for my own mother in my life (as I think a lot of people are), but as a culture we don’t celebrate the work of moms the way we do CEOs, politicians, or movie stars.
as a culture we don’t celebrate the work of moms the way we do CEOs, politicians, or movie stars
Mae’s character begins to address this pressure when she imagines herself at a cocktail party having to introduce herself as “just a mom.” I don’t like it at all that women who’ve made the decision to be a mom can feel judged for doing something that’s so wonderful, generous, and important. I think it’s quite possible that the storylines of Best Thing You’ll Ever Do could offend some people at the very same time that other people are saying, “YES, I feel the same way.” This frank conversation about remaining childfree or becoming a mother is much like the decision to get married or not — it’s an individual and deeply personal one and I like the idea of exploring the emotional process that people go through in coming to those conclusions. And I can’t help but hope that the series will be a voice in the conversation about how we think and talk about motherhood going forward.
CF: During the course of making this show, Monica and I are trying to answer this question for ourselves and because it’s real for us, we hope it can come across authentically in the show. I’m recently married — like Monica — and my husband and I have chosen a “child-free” life. But that decision comes with a lot of conversation with friends, families, and total strangers about why one might choose to have a family, or not! So partly due to our ages (30 somethings), and that we’re women and that we’re married (so babies is the next “step”), we are immersed in this conversation all the time. Making a show out of it feels almost like a natural extension of our lives!
CM: What has the response to the show been like? Has there been anything that’s surprised you, or that would change the way that you’d shoot another season?
MW: Some of the coolest responses we’ve gotten have been from women in their 60s and 70s, who’ve finished raising their children and said to Catherine and me that they really appreciated what we created. Being part of a generation who didn’t necessarily feel like they had a choice, it was just the natural order of life to finish school (or not), get married, and have babies. More than one mother has said to us that although they love their kids, they might not have had them if they felt they had the choice. I think that’s pretty remarkable. Another great response has been from guys in their 20s and 30s who say they feel some of these same worries and pressures about managing a career and having a baby, which makes me feel like they see themselves as an integral part of the everyday work of children’s upbringing, which I think is wonderful.
CF: People seem to really enjoy their time watching Best Thing, and they want more, which is awesome. We have another seven episodes to shoot of this season and they just keep getting deeper and deeper into the childfree/motherhood question. We’re excited to *hopefully* get to make more, and keep exploring this issue and Mae’s experience making her decision, all while keeping it really really fun to watch.
CM: What led you to the web series format?
CF: It’s such an exciting time to be a filmmaker and get to explore all these different formats and ways to tell a story. I love feature films, but I also love short stories. You have to be so concise, economical, and to the point, which is a great limitation and I think can foster a different kind of creativity.
I love feature films, but I also love short stories. You have to be so concise, economical, and to the point, which is a great limitation and I think can foster a different kind of creativity
MW: When the movie Bridesmaids came out, I remember reading an interview with Kristen Wiig where she said something like, “I didn’t know how to write a movie, but I could write 19 sketches,” and so I took the same approach. I have never written a television series, but I’ve written and produced short comedic videos, so it made sense to me to start short. Also, online video is like the Wild West right now. I feel like there is room for everyone to get on their horse and go claim some homestead land. (That scene in Far and Away has had a lasting impression on me). The web series space is exciting because an artist’s work doesn’t have to be perfect or even attract a huge audience right off the bat. There’s room for growth and time to hone your voice and evolve as an artist. I also appreciate watching artists grow in a web series, the way that we’ve seen Issa Rae go from episodes shot on an iPhone to working with HBO to make Insecure. After watching Insecure, it was exciting to go back to Awkward Black Girl and experience how she began — her YouTube show had the spark and glow without the same production value.
CM: The show is a visually compelling — taking us from New York to various locations around San Francisco. What’s been the biggest challenge in the actual creation of the show?
MW: Ha! Thank god Catherine and I had never shot a series before we made Best Thing You’ll Ever Do. We didn’t know the challenges we would encounter with locations and travel for crew and actors and so we really shot for the stars in our vision of this series. I think as we move forward we’ll be able to make smarter decisions about local hires in some cases, but ultimately, I think we both have an interest in watching beautiful performances filmed in interesting places and we’ll continue to work that way for Best Thing.
CW: Yes, shooting a low budget indie on two coasts was a little crazy. But we agreed in the beginning that we didn’t want to sacrifice the production value or visual candy that we both felt the show deserved. We could have shot episode four in a living room, or as a walk and talk on a city street, but Monica fell in love with this location on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and we made it happen (with a little help from some raven-guardians, long story) and I’m so happy we did! It takes a little more work and resourcefulness, but figuring out ways to do seemingly impossible things is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking.
CM: Are there any web series that you’d recommend?
MW: Whatever, Linda from creator Hannah Cheesman which reimagines the Madoff Ponzi scandal through the eyes (and actions) of a woman; Ah-Man Show, a too-short, very funny series (the editing is amazing) about two people becoming friends in Jordan from Chicago-based creator Katie Norregaard; and Cooking with Granny from creator Caroline Shin, who was sick of Anthony Bourdain telling her what to eat so she decided to talk to some kickass grannies about their favorite recipes.
CF: Yes, I love Whatever Linda! Brilliant.
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February 16, 2017