“This industry is filled with nepotism, and it's filled with writing that isn't inclusive to begin with … we wanted a voice from every background,” said UBC Bachelor's of Fine Arts acting alum Ava Maria Safai in an interview to The Ubyssey about her new show, I Killed Maddie Forbes.
Safai is the lead actor, director, showrunner, head writer, executive producer, songwriter and casting director for her passion project — the television show I killed Maddie Forbes, which will be released in January 2023.
The show is a dark comedy set in a high school in 1999 that narrates the chronological order of events leading up to the death of fictional ‘it girl’ Maddie Forbes.
Safai, who has been writing since the age of 10 and grew up on shows like One Tree Hill and Pretty Little Liars, always wanted to make a teen drama.
Beyond your typical drama, Safai prioritized diversity in both cast and concept in I killed Maddie Forbes. To aim for authentic representation, she tried an unconventional tactic: most of the actors wrote their own parts.
“I always test for writers who act,” said Safai, who had each auditioning cast pitch a character they wanted to play. She said that this allows them to more authentically embody their characters and to construct more natural chemistry
She credits her co-writer, Syd Castle, as behind most of the humor in the script.
Safai compared her own character Maddie to archetypal mean girl Regina George and highlighted that unlike the one dimensional Middle-Eastern characters she is used to seeing on screen, Maddie is layered and her depiction goes beyond just token representation.
While Safai enjoys donning different hats on set, she finds the role of the producer — calling the shots on set — the most difficult, partially due to the gender roles that often infiltrate workplace culture.
“My biggest challenge has been actually realising how much women in film are undervalued,” said Safai. She expressed how much easier it is for men to be taken seriously in the entertainment industry and how difficult it is for women to avoid tags of being “feisty” or “mean” for doing the same job. Still, with time and conversation, she’s grown into the leadership role and her crew have come to respect her and her authority on set.
I Killed Maddie Forbes is produced by the Harlequin Theatre Society, a non-profit production company which Safai started along with her partner in 2020. While initially a theatre company, they diversified into film and now television during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The seven-episode series, shot within a period of one month, is funded by the friends and family of the cast, grants from North Vancouver Recreation and Culture Commission (NVRC) and Safai and those at Harlequin. The entire crew (Safai included) has volunteered their time for the show, without pay.
While many would find it overwhelming to take on the amount of responsibility Safai has, she likes the creative control her different roles gave her. “It's overwhelming if you don't have the right team around you. You need the right support,” she said.
Part of I Killed Maddie Forbes was shot in the Ubyssey office space. The Ubyssey recieved no financial compensation and the cast of the television show was not involved in the pitching, writing or editing of this article.
A previous version of this article stated Syd Castle as the co-lead of the show. Castle in fact was unable to star in the show due to a scheduling conflict. The article was updated to reflect this change on September 12 at 10:00 pm.