How Watching The Real Housewives Made Me a Better Filmmaker

Writer-director Noah Schamus on the unlikely way Bravo’s reality TV franchise shaped their debut feature, Summer Solstice.

I just made my first (extremely) low-budget feature film, Summer Solstice, which follows two best friends from college, trans man Leo and cisgender (non-trans) and straight Eleanor, during an impromptu weekend trip during which they uncover the uncomfortable truths of how their friendship has changed, and the ways they may no longer fit into each other’s lives in the ways they thought. A few of my references were Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking, and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchises. If you see the film, you may find some clear lines (at least I hope) between Summer Solstice and the films I mentioned, but I’m sure the Real Housewives would not be the first (or hundredth) cultural touchstone that pops into your head watching the film. So let me explain!

Ashley Darby and Karen Huger hug in Real Housewives of Potomac.

First, a bit of context: in early high school, I started watching Bravo around the same time I started watching films directed by Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodóvar, Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I fell in love with the deeply felt emotions of the fictional characters in these films, and of these very real women. Much to my high-minded parents’ dismay, I studied the Housewives as closely as I paid attention to films and novels. I was thrilled (and horrified) to watch Ramona Singer and Bethenny Frankel on the most painful walk across the Brooklyn Bridge I can conceive of, where Ramona told Bethenny, “At least I have friends. You have no friends. You have nobody in your life. Right now you have Jason – you’ll probably mess that up too.” That, to me, was a glimpse into the human soul that engaged me just as much as the inter-textual layering, bold colors and deeply felt intimacy in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. (If I’m being honest, I cried both the first time I watched Ramona reaming Bethenny and during the last 30 minutes of All About My Mother).

I was electrified by these women in the Bravo Cinematic Universe, living out loud in all the unruly, unpleasant and glorious ways they do. I could wax poetic about why the Housewives have impacted me as a person, but I want to focus here on the way these series impacted my filmmaking process for Summer Solstice.

I started writing the film in March 2020, after I had been laid off from my job in feature film post-production because of pandemic shutdowns, and was trying to find something, anything, to think about other than the uncertainty and tragedy we were all collectively experiencing. I would take five-hour walks around Brooklyn, listening to music, swerving to avoid other pedestrians while still trying to make eye contact and connect on the eerily empty streets. Eventually, after I had exhausted my anxiety, I started thinking about what it felt like to be in my late twenties, to be queer and trans (I am non-binary and use they/them pronouns) and how my friendships with the women in my life, many of them friends from high school and college, had transformed as we all came of age, and came into ourselves, me into my queer and trans identity which made me feel at odds with some of these women who, while incredibly well-intentioned, were struggling to see me the way I hoped they would (and I them, but we’ll get to that later). From there, I created the characters of Leo and Eleanor. I set out for the film to be a drama about toxicity in friendships and the need to cut people out who no longer fit into your life. I wrote the first draft of the script and I read it and came away feeling … bummed as hell. Everyone, as I had written it, was a miserable jerk, totally unforgiving of each others’ flaws. I think there’s a time and a place for those kinds of characters and those kinds of films, but this draft was not only sort of cruel to the characters, but also … boring.

Writer-director Noah Schamus (left) with actors Marianne Rendón and Bobbi Salvör Menuez during the making of Summer Solstice. (Photo by Ethan Fuirst.)

So I put it aside, and I watched reruns of The Real Housewives of New York, Potomac, Beverly Hills (if I keep going, I’ll just name all the franchises, so I’ll stop here). These women, over the course of years, formed bonds, broke those bonds, and then repaired the harm they had caused each other. Sure, sometimes it’s an apology from Ramona Singer who loves to say sorry and then do the same thing over and over (and over and over) again, and never really change her behavior. But even if Ramona doesn’t change, each woman on the receiving end of her vitriol and subsequent tearful mea culpa does wind up forgiving her. Maybe it’s because they’re all co-workers, so what the hell else are they going to do, but through my somewhat Pollyanna-ish lens, I find these women’s continual forgiveness and understanding of each other’s flaws sort of amazing. I choose to see their grace for each other as inspirational. I can have a tendency in my own life, in moments of conflict, to want to give up, to avoid the ugliness of reckoning with the way my flaws and my friends’ flaws, our bad behavior, our worst impulses, collide in ways that are painful and difficult to negotiate.
One of the more dramatic Housewives plotlines involved the falling out between Tamra Judge and Vicki Gunvalson, who both took a blowtorch to their friendship after Vicki stood by her then-boyfriend, who’d lied about having cancer on national television. Call me naive, but watching Tamra and Vicki make amends after years of not talking – I teared up (even if Vicki denied also lying, when … she clearly had). Being a fan of these shows has taught me that conflict doesn’t always have to mean the end of a friendship, and that I can and should find grace for the messiness that exists within all of us.

So, I rewrote Summer Solstice (many, many more times after that first draft). I realized I had made Leo a victim in the dynamic with Eleanor, who in the first draft is unrelentingly self-involved and selfish. But that’s not the way my friendships existed, and not fair to Eleanor or Leo. I worked on exploring a dynamic between them that allows us to see why they were friends – Leo is shy, and Eleanor helps him come out of his shell. And Leo, in his stillness, allows Eleanor to slow down and (occasionally) introspect. Even though their relationship is complicated, it can’t be written off as entirely “toxic.” I discovered that, in my own complicated friendships, I had focused on the ways I thought my friends weren’t seeing me, and ignoring the ways I wasn’t seeing my friends. I found gentleness for my characters and a bit of accountability for myself, and actually confronted some of the issues in my friendships head on, in a way that, I think, allows room for all of us.

Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Marianne Rendón in Noah Schamus’ Summer Solstice.
(Photo by Jack Davis.)

The movie premiered in June of this year at the Provincetown Film Festival, and has been at some other wonderful festivals I’ve been lucky enough to attend, and I’ve been struck by a response I’ve been hearing from audiences I’ve spoken to after the screenings. People want to know why Leo is so forgiving of Eleanor’s (many) flaws. I think that’s fair – I’ve been joking that “we all have an Eleanor,” a chaotic friend from our youth who knows how to push your buttons, and might not be your friend were it not for the many years of history. But if Danielle Staub can forgive Teresa Giudice for calling her a “prostitution whore” on national television and flipping a table, which generated a decade-long feud (and many, many memes), surely there is a very real place where my characters, however tentatively, can find room to forgive each other.

I know I wanted to tell a story that doesn’t let anyone off the hook, but also doesn’t write off either of these characters.

I know the Housewives (and most of the other reality TV shows I watch and love) reify some of the most toxic parts of our culture, but I do think, in loving these women, I found space to love myself and my characters more, to find forgiveness for our humanity and humanness, in all its idiosyncratic glory.

Featured image: (left) Noah Schamus as photographed by Leah James; (right) Ramona Singer in The Real Housewives of New York.

Noah Schamus is a filmmaker of both documentary and narrative films. Their first feature, Summer Solstice, had its world premiere at Provincetown Film Festival in June 2023, and has played at festivals including Deauville, Mill Valley and Woodstock, among others, and screens at NewFest on October 21. The film was the recipient of the Panavision New Filmmaker grant, was a Notable Writer Project at the Outfest Screenwriting Lab, and won the Platige Image Award at US in Progress at the American Film Festival. Their most recent hybrid documentary short, The Script, co-directed with Brit Fryer, and produced by Multitude Films, was supported by Chicken & Egg Pictures and the Ford Foundation. The film premiered at CPH:DOX 2023, and has screened at Frameline, BlackStar and others. (Photo by Leah James.)