Inside Shrill, Lindy West's New TV Tale

The Portland-filmed Hulu series, which stars Aidy Bryant, is inspired by West's real-life transformation from bumbling cub reporter to nationally known feminist and fat activism powerhouse.

By Rob Owen February 26, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

In what looks like a pretty typical Portland coffee shop—bicycles parked out front, patrons with backpacks slung over their shoulders, a hip mom in nerd-cool glasses pushing a baby stroller up to the counter—Annie reads a personal trainer’s ad on a community bulletin board. Suddenly, she’s confronted by the actual trainer in person, who opines, uninvited: “You actually have a really small frame—you weren’t meant to carry around all this extra weight!”

It’s a painful scene rendered darkly comic by Annie’s reactions—she’s shocked but tries to stay pleasant—and the cringe-worthy way the encounter careens from bad to worse. And that’s just the first five minutes of Hulu’s new, filmed-in-Portland half-hour series, Shrill, which tells a story inspired by writer Lindy West’s real-life transformation from bumbling cub reporter to nationally known feminist and fat activism powerhouse.

Late last summer, West stood next to a monitor on set in Portland, watching as her on-screen doppelgänger, Annie (played by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, pictured above), prepares to confront her boss in the show’s first-season finale. “The show isn’t just about being a fat woman, but a lot of it is,” says West. “Growing up not seeing anyone on-screen who looked like me or at least presented in a positive way or a human way—this show is a commentary on that. It’s also its own remedy for that.”

It couldn’t come at a better time: for viewers, or for Portland’s movie and TV industry. Debuting March 15, the first two episodes evoke the mixed tone of a smart cable show, juggling pathos and biting, uncomfortable comedy. Its themes of body positivism and feminist chutzpah are a perfect fit for the Portland zeitgeist, but Shrill is equally important for what it signals about out city’s burgeoning TV and film scene. With Portland coming off eight years as the home base for Portlandia, Shrill offers a sign that the city is cementing its rep as a hub for TV production. And, incidentally, doubling down on its other claim to Northwest fame: not being Seattle.

The show is based on West’s 2016 acclaimed essay collection Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. The book, which chronicles West’s real-life experiences as a young writer and reporter in Washington state, is set in Seattle. The TV show, however, is all Portland, filmed in and around the city in August and September 2018. And for West, at least, that’s a good thing.

“It’s a relief for me, as a real person who has to deal with her real family and real friends and real acquaintances, to be able to say, ‘Look, it’s not me! She lives in Portland! I’ve never lived in Portland,’” West said during a September set visit.

Bryant, known for her excellent recurring turn as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on SNL, had been a fan of West’s book (“I don’t know if I had ever read anything I so identified with—‘That’s exactly how I felt! That happened to me!’—the whole time,” she remembers) and ultimately became cocreator of the TV series. She cowrote the first two episodes of Shrill with West and showrunner Ali Rushfield.

“I have always struggled with wanting to be very nice and be perceived as nice, and a lot of that is in this character,” Bryant says. “That meets some of the ideas in Lindy’s book about feeling apologetic for the way you look.”

In Shrill Annie works at a fictional Portland paper called the Weekly Thorn, where she clashes with the editor, Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a stand-in for Seattle’s Stranger editor and sex columnist Dan Savage from West’s real-life past. (Producers toured the offices of the Portland Mercury, a Stranger affiliate, for inspiration.) The decision to shoot in Portland came fairly late in the process, so the city’s influence in the show is muted on-screen. But offscreen, Portland had a key role to play, a behind-the-scenes star turn for Stumptown as a TV production hub with a serious talent pool. 

Ian Owens and Aidy Bryant in Shrill

Image: Courtesy Hulu

Why not just shoot in Seattle? Two words: tax incentives. Washington’s film tax credit program is capped at just $3.5 million annually. Oregon’s $14 million cap puts it to shame (though even that is small potatoes compared to, say, Pennsylvania’s $65 million annually, or Georgia—which recently played Oregon in I, Tonya—with no cap at all).

Beyond that, Shrill’s producers include SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels’s Broadway Video, which filmed, you guessed it, the entire eight-season run of Portlandia. The relationship between Portland and Broadway Video continues to yield dividends for the local film industry. The third season of the company’s IFC series Documentary Now! filmed in Portland last summer, and now Shrill follows suit.

Oregon’s film tax rebate program isn’t the only lure. Portland won out over Vancouver and Los Angeles in large part because of a crack network of now-seasoned local pros who cut their teeth on Portlandia, including Emmy winners Schuyler Telleen (production design) and Amanda Needham (costume design). Both were also hired to work on Shrill. For all the city’s love-hate relationship with the show that sent up our hipster liberalism with such gusto, Shrill is proof that Portlandia’s hefty run here is paying off.

“If we have a good reputation, it means people want to come back here,” says Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film, the state agency that promotes Oregon as a production location. Other points that work in Portland’s favor include diverse settings within an hour of the city center and the fact that, according to Williams, performers actually want to come and spend time here.

In the last fiscal year, 34 film, TV, and interactive game projects were produced in Oregon, Williams says, generating $183 million in in-state spending. Recent projects include Freeform’s upcoming Pretty Little Liars spin-off series The Perfectionists; episodes from season two of Netflix’s The OA; and portions of the Disney movie Timmy Failure, slated to premiere on the Disney+ streaming service.

“We are really good at mid-budget series and mid-budget movies,” says Williams. (He’s talking about productions that cost between $1 million and $2.5 million per episode.) “Those are the ones the incentive program can help to a degree that it makes a difference. They don’t take over the town. I’m not entirely sure Portland, Oregon, is ready for a Marvel movie.”

Back on set, West watches as Bryant confers with director Shaka King on the timing of a facial expression before the actor moves to her mark for another take.

Bryant pushed for Portland as the filming location for a number of reasons. Not only had she filmed an episode of Portlandia here, she also has family connections in the state. She’d visited her brother when he was studying journalism at the University of Oregon a few years ago, and her father was a long-distance runner who raced against Steve Prefontaine.

She also feels Portland’s local sensibility connects with the show’s themes in particular ways. “The crew really cared,” she says. “The content meant so much to them. I’ve shot other things in New York and LA, and that’s not always the case.”

As for that opening coffee shop scene with the fat-shaming trainer? It may be set in Portland, but was taken from Bryant’s real-life experience (not West’s) growing up in Arizona.

“I think [that person in Arizona] thought they were helping me, trying to encourage me,” she says of the comment about her “small frame.” “But that was an incredible thing to lob at someone. It’s amazing how cavalierly those kinds of things can be tossed off and how painful it can be to receive that kind of thing. How do you not tell them to fuck off but still have boundaries? This is a big question we look at in the show: what do you let people say to you, and where do you draw the lines?”

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