Filmmaker asks ‘Who’s Annie?’ in a stylish docu-comedy |

Filmmaker asks ‘Who’s Annie?’ in a stylish docu-comedy

30-minute TV series pilot finds audience at Slamdance

Sophia Peer’s ‘Who’s Annie?’ at Slamdance

Filmmaker Sophia Peer, right, directs Annie Pisapia, in the car, as Sofia Dobrushin looks on in a scene from the comedy series pilot, “Who’s Annie?,” that will screen at Slamdance on Thursday at Treasure Mountain Inn. “Who’s Annie” is a series based on Pisapia’s life.
Courtesy of Shark Party Media

There’s more to “Who’s Annie?” than meets the eye, said director and screenwriter Sophia Peer.

The 30-minute TV series pilot, which premiered at Slamdance on Sunday and will have a second screening on Thursday, is actually a show within a film that centers around actress Annie Pisapia.

“It’s about Annie’s past and present, and part of Annie’s present is that she’s working on a TV show,” Peer said. 

The series is inspired by real-life events that took place after Peer and Pisapia met in 2016 at a Burger King in Queens, New York.

“We did our first test shoot, where I auditioned Annie on camera, and we filmed a fake commercial for a life insurance company,” Peer said. “That’s when I really found out what it was like to work with her.”
At that time, Pisapia had just started acting, and she was pretty green, according to Peer.

“She had done some student films and some work as an extra, but now she was the star, so every time we put down a marker for her, she was like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s a marker for me?’” Peer said. “That kind of informed how the rest of the process went.”

Pisapia’s life and personality inspired Peer to create the pilot and series.

“She has a big personality, and she’s very charming,” the filmmaker said. “She has been through (things) that one would think would make a person very negative or discouraged. But she’s not. She’s full of hope and optimism.”

While sometimes optimism can look like naivety on some people, it doesn’t on Pisapia, Peer said.

“Annie’s hard as nails,” she said. “The first time I met her, she briefly touched on the layers of abuse, addiction and incarceration. And she was on her fifth marriage, which is actually doing very well. I love her husband Lenny.”

Another thing that attracted Peer to examine Pisapia as a subject was their similar goals.

Peer’s parents were very young when they fled the Holocaust, and the immigrant experience for them was really rough, she said.

“I was thinking about trying to tell their story in a sort of comedic way, and I realized Annie was trying to do the same thing with her life,” Peer said. “She was trying to take all the bad stuff that happened and turn it into something comedic.”

Filming the pilot took years, said Peer, who worked with scriptwriter Annie Sicherman.

“It was, ‘How am I going to afford the next thing?’ or ‘How am I going to make time for the next thing?’” she said. 

Peer’s crew was excited enough to work with her, but the project, which is self-funded, took a while to find and raise money to move forward, according to Peer.

“We filmed in order to get a grant. And when we got the grant, we wrote and filmed more,” she said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and ‘What am I doing to myself,’ taking out loans, which is very nerve racking.”

As luck or fortune goes, the project caught the eye of the Gotham Film & Media Institute in New York, and was accepted into its episodic lab program. From there, “Who’s Annie?” was included in the Gotham Week conference, which connects emerging talent in film with industry decision makers.

“I met our executive producer Ryan Cunningham, who has worked on ‘Broad City,’ ‘Search Party’ and ‘Inside Amy Schumer,’ and she has been really helpful in introducing us to people,”  said Peer, who is known for her music video work for artists like Paramore, The National, Fielded and Julien Baker.

Getting “Who’s Annie?” from concept to film took a different kind of challenge.

“A little twist happened when I casted somebody to play myself,” she said. “I cast Sofia Dobrushin, which is a little confusing, because now we were working with two Annies and two Sophias. So, Annie started calling the other Sofia by a nickname, ‘Button.’”

So things got kind of existential when Peer was giving Button direction on how she would direct Pisapia in the show within the pilot.

“We kind of created an amazing world that is all women, who are playing different kinds of roles,” she said. “Within that world, we have women from different generations, who are making missteps and being misguided in a single-minded goal. And there were scenes when I had to let go of the control I normally have, and that was stressful.”

Still, Peer’s relationship with Pisapia gave her the confidence to know that she wasn’t going to misrepresent the actress.

“The show is so intimate and respectful to Annie, because it’s so much about her struggle and her sense of humor,” Peer said.

That connection did raise a different type of fear in Peer.

“I guess what I really did feel afraid about was giving Annie all this hope and then have circumstances take everything away after all the hard work she has done on the project,” she said. “I just wanted her to have the base-case scenario. I guess I still feel that way.”

The best-case scenario is getting the pilot into film festivals, such as Slamdance, Peer said.

“I didn’t know where it was going to end up, but it was one of those things that I was compulsively working on,” she said. “The worst-case scenario was that it would be something that exists in the world, even if it’s on my Vimeo page, that represents everything that I want to make.”

Ultimately “Who’s Annie?” is a stylized version of Pisapia’s life, Peer said.

“This woman is on her 17th chance in life, and this is all about giving her everything that she dreamed of, and by proxy giving myself everything I dreamed of,” she said.

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