Sisters Laura and Vanessa Marano were left feeling haunted, yet inspired after reading Alyson Noël‘s 2007 young adult novel, Saving Zoë, over ten years ago. The acting duo, along with their mom Ellen, decided to option the idea of making the crime drama into their first producing effort, and in doing so, found a deeper, and even more relevant meaning to the story that they hadn’t before. “We weren’t super educated on the issue, but while working on this movie, we ended up learning so much about online sexual exploitation. It’s this idea where online videos or pictures taken unwillingly of people in maybe compromising positions or situations are then used against them and put out there their consent or knowledge,” Vanessa explained. “There are so many different faces to online sexual exploitation and obviously, our character’s story is a fictionalized one, it doesn’t change the fact that it is real and it does happen.”
Upon understanding the widespread nature of sexual exploitation of women around the world and how it relates to the story of Saving Zoë, Laura and Vanessa decided to partner with Equality Now, whose mission is to “achieve legal and systemic change that addresses violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.” Together, they have showed the film to survivors of sexual exploitation and hosted screenings with Q&As to talk more about the issue with fans.
Starring Laura Marano as Echo, a high schooler still reeling over her sister, Zoë’s (Vanessa Marano) tragic murder, Saving Zoë explores the horrifying grief that comes with losing someone. At the same time, it follows Echo’s journey as she receives Zoë’s old diary, and slips into the unsettling world of her late sister’s life.
HollywoodLife: You have said in interviews that even twelve years later, Saving Zoë is more relevant than ever. How so?
Laura: It really is more relevant than ever, which has been so striking on this journey. I think it’s because we live in this digital age, and so many things in the book played a huge part in our characters’ lives online, which is even more relevant now than it was in 2007. In the book, they were using Myspace and VHS tapes, but now we have so much access online. It took ten years to get a script done and to make this movie, but we’re almost so grateful because it is far more relevant today than we could have ever imagined it would be.
Vanessa: While working on this movie and then teaming up with and organization called Equality Now, we’ve learned so much more about online sexual exploitation. What people don’t realize is that online sexual exploitation is a form of trafficking that is happening daily, and has arguably made a variety of different things, such as child pornography, easier to access than it ever was before, and because of that, it’s happening more frequently than it ever was before, but, it doesn’t happen necessarily in the way that we’d all expect it to. This issue, pertaining to the internet is a lot more insidious and frequent. A lot of the times people do not realize what is happening to them, they are unaware of what is happening is to them. They get far too deep in than what they ever thought. Their trust is in a person who ultimately betrays them.
HL: Did you both understand the severity of the situation when you read Saving Zoë in 2007? Is that a theme you picked up in the book or you came to discover?
V: When we read the book, we connected so much to the story about sisters, grief and in some ways to the story of what happens to you as a young girl. I think the emotions that Echo and Zoe feel are emotions that we felt, that friends of ours have felt, and I think certain situations were identical to things we’ve gone through. That’s even more telling, too, that the issue was almost in the background to a certain degree. It was second nature in a weird way and that’s what I think is horrifying. We don’t realize how frequent this happens, we don’t realize how small the situation is and how quickly it can get out of control. It wasn’t until making the film and partnering with Equality Now that we were like, “This is such a big issue that is happening so often and we need to really discuss this.”
L: It was definitely a dark book, but it’s interesting because it has a lot of aspects about grief and really the heart — is grief, not a love story between two sisters. But, when you start reading about Zoe’s story and her dark past, it sneaks up on you. You finish the book feeling haunted. You finish the book knowing this is an issue, but not really knowing much about it.
HL: You have so many young fans, why was it important for you to tell this story to them?
V: We found that with producing the film and trying to get it made, a lot of people said, “It’s very dark. It’s not light and fluffy like teen girls and young adult women want, they just want things to be like pretty and fluffy,” and we were offended by that.
L: Right, we said, ‘No way.’ I firmly believe that young women, especially, are intelligent and strong and want to talk about things that are real and that are affecting us all.
HL: And, if you don’t talk about it and educate, it will continue to happen.
L: Yes, and that’s our goal with this movie. Let’s start a conversation so no one feels that they have to suffer in silence.
HL: Apart from the subject matter, what has it been like taking the reigns on this film and seeing it through? You were both there every step of the way, optioning the book, producing the film and starring in it.
L: We filmed this movie before the Me Too movement, before the Time’s Up movement, and so it does feel, even in that way, like such a rewarding experience. On the producer level, it was really rewarding in so many ways and definitely challenging. We filmed it in the beginning of summer of 2017, which had the age of female empowerment in the air but not the way it is now. Luckily, we had crew and people on the team that were so helpful and wonderful and it was a beautiful experience. I think we did have to fight a little harder, though, because we weren’t taken seriously at times because we were young girls and first time producers.
V: It’s really interesting because we produced the film with our mom, and our mother grew up in this industry. She’s been in this industry since she was 20 something and so she had completely different experiences than my sister and I have had. It was really interesting for the three of us to come together with our different experiences and it all be our first time producing, no matter your age or experience, coming into a position of power as a female you are treated differently. It was really the first time that we all three got to talk about our different perspectives on that, and bridge a generational gap. We used all of our different knowledge and experiences from our different generations to really make the best product.
HL: How important was it for you two to work together on this project?
L: It was always the dream from the beginning. It’s about two sisters, and we read it and we were like, “We’re two sisters!” So I think for sure that was always the goal and we hadn’t worked together for a really long time.
V: I think there was something really cool about us having our own individual careers as performers, and being able to, our first time producing, combine our fan bases. Especially since this is a family project we did with our mom, we feel so much stronger together.
HL: I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to tap into the mindset of losing a sister, how did you guys work through that?
L: I think there was a level of we had to, right? Sometimes when you just have to, because we were wearing our producer hat as well, I didn’t have time to totally understand and comprehend all the kind of feelings and emotions I was having enter my body. My process as an actress is very much putting myself in the head space of the character I’m in, but then I did have to turn it off when I was being a producer. It was a challenging situation that was absolutely necessary.
V: And oddly, it was cathartic in a way, too. Part of another reason we were attracted to Saving Zoë was ultimately because it’s a story about grief. We’ve experienced a fair amount of loss in our lives, and particularly Saving Zoë came at a time when there was a lot of grief back to back to back. As difficult as grief is, it is a part of life and I think there was something about making a project about how difficult that process is and how all over the place that process is, that was cathartic.
HL: How important was it for you to stay close to the story in the book?
L: It was really important. We actually worked with the author every step of the way.
V: We sent Alyson the first draft of the script, we showed her first cuts of the film — her blessing was very, very important to us. She’s so wonderful to work with and made us feel so confident in our abilities. Obviously a film is always going to be different than a book, it’s a different type of storytelling, so when transforming a book to screen you really have to isolate what are the important points that have to be told in order for the story to translate on the screen. We were very conscious of that through the process, but overall there are very specific moments that stayed in that we thought were so important to the story. The fact that she feels that we did right by her is the best feeling in the entire world.
Saving Zoë is now available On Demand, as well as iTunes, Amazon, Spectrum, DirecTV and select theaters across the country!