Hello friends, family, and fellow Recovering Evangelicals! Just a fair warning, this blog post is a bit longer than my usual posts. But it is super important to me that I share this journey with you, so I hope you care enough to set aside time to read it. If not, no worries! I'll just keep bothering you until you do. LEGGO!
In 2015 I started writing down and sharing my personal experience with what is now more popularly known as religious deconstruction and purity culture. Those terms didn’t exist back then, so I called it being a “Recovering Evangelical from Jesus Culture” and regailed my discoveries in God, Sex, and Rich People: The Mattie Jo Memoirs.
What started as just a fun little creative hobby, grew into a full on creative mission. I started holding a vision of making God, Sex, and Rich People a media empire of sorts. I saw it as books turned into movies, or a TV show. I wanted to write feature films based on these stories. I wanted to create media for the niche, but actually large group of religiously and sexually wounded “Exvangelicals” in a real, but funny way.
I’ve always known I had something special with these stories. So I've worked to trust the process and hard work of all the things coming together to make my vision a reality.
Well, I've been writing the book since November 2020 and I’ve been working on developing my pilot since February 2020. I'll write a blog post about my book writing process eventually, but as of next weekend, I will have officially written, directed, produced, and starred in the pilot/proof of concept episode for God, Sex, and Rich People: the series!
You are not behind. You are right where you’re supposed to be. Trust the timing of your life
Now, you may be thinking "what the hell does ‘producing a pilot’ even mean, Mattie Jo?" Great question! I didn’t even know the answer to this until like 6 months ago. Allow me to share what I’ve learned.
For starters “produce” is sort of a catch all term. But for indie projects, it usually means funding and arranging all the details of the production. Ie hiring the crew, stacking the creative team, finding locations, getting insurance, gear, making sure people have hummus and pretzel chips when they're hungry. It’s a lot!
Of course, because producing even a small project is very expensive, you don’t have to fund an entire production. There are different routes one can go when writing a script/show:
1) Put together a “pitch deck” — an outline of the series — and immediately start pitching it to networks without ever filming anything. This means a network will fund your series (if they like it ofc). If your pitch is successful, the network buys the rights, legal things are negotiated, etc…and then all your friends and family get to watch your series on Netflix.
2) Put together a pitch deck and a sizzle reel -- like a commercial for the series -- as a proof of concept, shop it around to networks, and hope for the aforementioned Netflix outcome.
3) Produce the entire series yourself and forego relying on a network to love your ideas because you already love your ideas! Producing on your own means you have to have the money to make it happen. Which means you either have a trust fund or need to raise the money (or save up for years and years, depending on your financial situation). Usually ends up on the internet for free ie Youtube or Vimeo.
I decided I wanted to do a hybrid of 1 and 3, and I will tell you why.
Due to the nature of my show being set in New York City, funding an entire 7-10, 20 minute episode season on my own would be insanely expensive. On a SMALL budget, I would still need about 100k to make the whole first season myself. Also, I don’t want to fund the whole thing myself! I want Darren Star to fund it and make it FABULOUS.
But I also really wanted a piece of God, Sex, and Rich People the series to always be mine, and also be able to share it with you on my timeline, devoid of if a network ever picks it up. So I decided I wanted to produce at least the pilot on my own.
When this is all done, I will have a pitch deck and a self-produced pilot as my "proof of concept." I will submit the pilot to festivals and also work to get meetings with networks, bigger producers, etc...I think I have to get an agent too. Oy.
Okay so now that you know what “produce a pilot” means when I say it, let me tell ya a bit about how I got here.
I have been working on a version of this pilot script since February 2020 with a production team I’d worked with on a short film in 2018. Since I didn’t have any experience in directing or producing, I felt more comfortable just writing the script and acting in it. I’d let someone else take care of the rest.
As proof of my novice experience, my first draft of the pilot was a full 30 minute episode, multiple locations, and a huge cast. When I learned it was going to cost me 40k+ for that one episode, I said "oh no." and worked to scale back.
I drafted a few different versions of this script, and then in Winter 2021, I had a new idea. Since I didn’t feel like I could do God, Sex, and Rich People the series justice with my current resources, I thought doing a small scale anthology series entitled Abstinence Only Education would be a better, more feasible concept to bring to life. I worked with the same production team to get that moving, and then stopped when I got quoted at 12k for the first episode.
12k? FOR TEN PAGES?? This was supposed to be the affordable creative project option!
I was so defeated.
But it was more than just the budget. Something just didn't feel right.
I fought with the part of me that hates not following through with commitments while also trying to honor that voice of my Knowing that did not want to follow through. At the time, I was also going through the mess of turning down a publishing offer, so I just needed some creative and emotional space to not make any big decisions. I sat with my anxiety and intuition, hoping to make a definitive answer about this pilot-making by Summer 2021.
“Why is anyone other than you directing this?” Gui asked.
“Because I’ve never directed. I’m afraid this will suck if I do it.”
I answered, maybe too honestly.
Was this thing ever going to happen??
And then, in June of 2021, I attended my first in-person acting class since the pandemic.
It. Was. Magical. I can honestly say that evening was the most pivotal event of 2021 for me.
My teacher opened class with a lecture about trusting the timing of YOUR life. YOUR personal journey. You are not behind. You are right where you’re supposed to be. Trust the timing of your life.
This is exactly what I needed to hear.
Last Winter into Spring, I did not sleep for months and was even seeing a doctor over my anxiety, something I'd never experienced. 31 was creeping up on me and the aging demons of my internal narratives were literally keeping me up at night. “I have no TV/impressive acting credits, I’m not going to be published by 30, and God, Sex, and Rich People: the series isn’t even happening!”
I felt unsuccessful, unimpressive, and like a plain-o-lame-o.
Trust the timing of your life, Mattie Jo. You are not behind. You are right where you’re supposed to be.
My scene partner that evening was someone I’d never met at my acting studio before, Gui Agustini. Not only is Gui an incredible actor, over drinks after class, I learned that he is also the ultimate “do it yourself” kind of actor. He directs, produces, acts in, and edits a ton of his own work.
Over the course of the next week, we swapped footage of different projects in which we’d been involved. I even did something crazy vulnerable and let him read my pilot script.
“MJ you have to make this.” He told me. “It’s really good.”
“You’re not just saying that because you think I’m pretty?” I replied.
I don’t think I said that. But I definitely thought it.
Instead I told him everything about what I’d gone through with the production team, the director, budget, etc...since February 2020.
“Why is anyone other than you directing this?” Gui asked.
“Because I’ve never directed. I’m afraid this will suck if I do it.” I answered, maybe too honestly.
And then he said some version of this:
“MJ, this is your story. No one else will care for this as much as you. You are absolutely the only person who should be directing this. At the very least, don’t let a man direct it. And you can produce this as well! You know enough people in this industry. It will take a lot of work but you can put together a team, you don’t need someone else to do that for you. This is yours. Own it, all of it.”
And then I had a massive “Oh shit” moment (not to be confused with a "massive shit" moment, that's different. And that joke was for my grandfather, the late, great Jim Cowsert).
Ugghghhhhhghhghgh. Gui was right. Maybe the feeling of hesitation in making a decision about this damn pilot wasn’t all about the budget. It was about rising to the occasion of owning what is mine. And trusting I do have the skill set to do it all -- write, direct, act, produce, lead.
I realized I was operating from a place of fear and inadequacy. Like I needed someone else to do a job only I could do exceptionally. The truth I had to reconcile -- at the risk of letting others down -- was that God, Sex, and Rich People: the series pilot needed to be fully mine.
A bunch of working class heroes donated to help this daughter of a preacher and teacher pay $5,000 to attend a 3 week session at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts* with the 1%, and my life trajectory was forever changed.
Okay, but now what?
A few weeks later, I was invited to attend the screening of Backsliders series by Keylee and Micah Sudduth of Bob Billiams Productions at Tribeca Film Festival. Keylee and I connected on Instagram due to my blog and became big fans of one another pretty quickly. She is a fellow Enneagram 4 and purity culture survivor. We are internet soul sisters!
For those of you who don’t know, Tribeca is in the Top 10 film festivals in the world to get into, and Keylee and Micah have gotten in twice! Not only that, their work is also in the religious deconstruction/purity culture space (seriously, go watch Backsliders and Home. Also their podcast. So good). I was over the moon to be invited to this event!
After the screening, we had a little schmoozing/chatting with other filmmakers time. Getting to attend Tribeca and meet so many other filmmakers in the deconstruction and purity culture space was exactly what I needed to finally make a decision about my pilot. All the other creatives essentially said the same thing Gui said: This is your story, MJ. You have to tell it.
So I left Tribeca and a few days later broke the news to the production team I had been collaborating with for the last year -- I was going in a different direction. I didn't want to hire a production team or a director. I didn't want to make Abstinence Only Education (yet. I will do this one day!), I wanted to make God, Sex, and Rich People, and I wanted to do it myself. Direct, produce, show run...the whole bit. God, Sex, and Rich People is my baby. I am the only person who will take the mostest care of it.
I was terrified as I hit send on that email. Sad to let down friends who had put a lot of creative energy into this for the last year and half, but also knowing I was making the right decision for me. Also also very terrified of saying I would take the lead on doing things I've never done before, but I did it anyway. I jumped blindly, as they say.
A few weeks later I asked Keylee if she'd be willing to consult with me on my script. In our consultation meetings, she suggested I hire a co-director since I’ll be acting in all of this and it’s on a budget. I may not have the time to go back and forth between takes to make sure we got the shot, etc…
She made a great point, and without missing a beat or thinking about it really I replied “Wait, will you be my co-director?” She said yes, she'd love to!
OMG! I had a female co-director for God, Sex, and Rich People the series whom I met because she's a a fan of God, Sex, and Rich People the blog?! My heart filled to the brim!
Trust the timing of your life, Mattie Jo.
We started meetings. We set the budget, I hired a line producer (whom I met on set for that erectile dysfunction ad I recently did lol ON BRAND). We hired the creative team and set the dates. I even started my own production company (with an LLC, business credit card and everything!), Too Much Productions LLC.
God, Sex, and Rich People the pilot was finally happening! In exactly the right timing, with exactly the right people. Even with the exactly right budget. Which is actually more than I originally hoped to budget, but I'm actually at total peace with that too. Because it's truly all right.
Okay now the part where I talk about the budget.
As an actor, I knew the details that go into making "movie magic" is... a lot. But holy whoa, I am learning that even more being on the producing side of this. Every time I have a meeting with my line producer, more details need to be ironed out and more money needs to appear.
In order to stay within a reasonable budget, the pilot is only 12 pages and will be a 2 day shoot. Even being an indie low budget set, this production is still going to cost me between 15-17k. I have saved diligently over the past year and a half, and I have a solid percentage of these costs covered. But of course, any extra help is a HUGE help.
I’ve called in favors and gotten scrappy without sacrificing quality to keep the budget on the lower end. But the reality is, things just cost money. SO IF you feel so inclined, you are welcome to venmo me @mattiejo-cowsert whatever amount feels right. I will then I will transfer the funds to my LLC account (I looked into making a business Venmo account to look more legit but it takes like 2-3%! No thank you please).
I know there is a lot of icky-ness around asking for money. But then I remember the entire reason I am even in New York City, getting to pursue my passions, is because 15 years ago a bunch of people in my community came together and donated money to help me attend a theatre camp for rich kids in Upstate New York.
A bunch of working class heroes donated to help this daughter of a preacher and teacher pay $5,000 to attend a 3 week session at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts* with the 1%, and my life trajectory was forever changed. Unbeknownst to me, God, Sex, and Rich People was born in those 3 weeks (cuz the gays and rich people). And it couldn't have happened if, as a 14 year old, I didn’t cervix up and ask people if they’d like to help.
I am planning to launch a full-on crowd fund in the coming weeks. But I'm too swamped with production at the moment so for now, I'm just opening my Venmo to close friends and family and subscribers. You can count it as a tithe! Though it is not tax deductible...
If you contribute, you will receive a thank you and update on exactly how your contribution helped. As well as some fantastic Behind the Scenes footage! Or maybe a framed picture of Gui with his shirt off, if you’re into that (you are likely into that).
Okay, if you’ve gotten all the way to the end of this very loquacious blog post, thank you. And also leave a comment so I know how many people actually did make it to the end of this loquacious blog post.
I can’t say it enough. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. You all have helped me figure out how to live life to my utmost purpose, and I know I am beyond lucky I get to do that.
Here’s to living abundantly in relentless pursuit of joy and great sex. And then making #art about it.
*PS My bestest buddy, Jonathan Demar whom I met at French Woods is providing the main location for my pilot. FULL CIRCLE MY DUDES!!!