After more than a year of writing, editing and filming, Sugar—a series of webisodes created by actor Dylan McDermott, and filmed locally in Sarasota-Manatee—made its debut at Ringling College of Art and Design's soundstage last week.
McDermott, who's been involved with Ringling's film program for more than four years, wrote and directed Sugar's pilot episode, which introduces the audience to a young girl named Sugar who has run away from an abusive home situation. Along the way, she meets a cast of characters—from a fisherman named Wild to a drag queen named Barry—who help illuminate her journey.
The idea for Sugar is one that's been with McDermott for a long time. "When I was a kid, my dad and I saw a movie called Hardcore, with George C. Scott, about a runaway girl, and it's always stayed with me," he says. "Same with a film called Streetwise, as well as Mary Ellen Mark's photography."
Those films and Mark's photography—as well as the work of his adoptive mother, Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), and his own daughters—were the inspiration for Sugar, an idea McDermott pitched to Semkhor Productions' David Shapiro, who was interested in the project from the beginning. (Shapiro and Semkhor are also partners in Ringling's new soundstage, which opened last month.)
"When I met David, it came to fruition," McDermott recalls, "and Ringling was interested, and we wanted to get them involved."
He says Sarasota was the perfect place to film the series, because "although it's a very wealthy, white community, any time there's beauty, there's always darkness. And human trafficking is happening here, too; there's light and dark everywhere. I thought setting Sugar in Sarasota was more interesting than someplace obvious, like Miami."
The location also translated to a host of students and alumni working on Sugar, including former Ringling students Jason Letkiewicz, who directed several episodes; Sebastian Avery, the series' art director; and Nick Morgulis, its cinematographer. In addition, Shapiro and Ringling's Tony Stopperan served as executive producers, and McDermott brought in the young Los Angeles-based actress Zoe Lillian to play the title role.
"I didn't want this to be a vanity project," McDermott says. "I wanted to hand it off to [the college] and say, 'I'll do the pilot; after this, you write it, you produce it, you do the music and edit it. Take it and have real life experience.'"
And, he's quick to say, the real reason he wanted to make Sugar in the first place was to empower women.
"There's so much violence against women in the world," he says. "And it's men who have to change—we need to empower women rather than demean them or do violence toward them. There's an evolution that needs to happen. People don't really talk about that part of it much."
He adds he wanted the series to show Sugar's strength as opposed to making her a victim. "I wanted to empower her; to take her on a journey and not have her be a victim," he explains. "Most of the time you see a runaway girl and she becomes victimized, and then a victim. It was important for me to have her become empowered through living on the streets."
At the Ringling screening and the ensuing question-and-answer session, McDermott also addressed questions about his next projects and his thoughts on making Sarasota a film industry hotspot. "I got an offer on a major show by a big network and I'm going to pitch shooting it here," he says. And, he adds, Sugar is going to Cannes and he's already thinking about possibilities for Season 2.
"I'd like to go back in time and see why Sugar left home," he says thoughtfully. "I think a lot about the idea of repetition—why do we repeat [behaviors], why do we stay in the same circle of life, stay in our narrative of who we think we are, the story that we tell about ourselves. We recast. I love psychology and thinking about why we do the things we do."