A mere two weeks away from production, the WMM Make Your Feature Competition winning film The Unicorn Diaries, is set to flip the RomCom genre on its head and set fire to the ideology of monogamy. Inspired by her own curiosity, quest for fierce authenticity, and love of love, writer and star of the film Datgirl Serene is prepping to bare her soul and leave no stone unturned in investor and director (and uber multi-hyphenate) Cate Caplin’s cinematic vision of the very personal journey into polyamory.
The pair have tirelessly been refining the script, honing the cast, and curating the look and feel of the film for the better half of a year, amassing talented collaborators like veteran DP Erik “Wolfie” Wolford, boutique designer Jordan Terra, costume designer Shon LeBlanc, and specialty act GoGo Hoop Dancestars to name a few. The film stars Datgirl as “Lili'', Billy Budinich as''Tyler”, and Chad Doreck as “Brian”, with Niki J. Crawford as “Addison”, Alexandria Gracely as “Raven”, Ruby Farley as “Anna”, Brent Charles as “Ross”, Madison Orange as “Vedeka”, Quinn Quest Knox as “Jordan”, Mary Pumper as “Cassidy”, Lilly Blue Moon as Herself, Nicole Serralva as “Eva”, Zapper Jones as Himself, Jeff Lawless as “Chase”, Nyx C as “Dio Daedalus”, Bradley James Holzer as “Darkstar”, Abbe Rowlins as “Auntie Tefaha”, Asiyeh Ziaei as “Auntie Rootie”, Shar as “Cousin Danny”, Nicky Romaniello as “Pablo”, Maddison Holland as “Andi”, and Gregory Townsend as “BT the Bouncer”.
Datgirl jokes, “If you only see one movie about polyamory this year - hmmmm why see only one?” but beneath the cheeky advert slogan is an insightful peek into the ethically non-monogamous explorations of first generation Lili, an Iraqi DJ who discovers her love language alongside her musical voice. Read on to find out why this film should matter to you.
WMM: Datgirl, what was the impetus for wanting to tell this story?
DS: The expected answer is that I had a life-changing experience, learned, grew, came out the other side — and now I’m making a movie about it! But that is SO NOT TRUE. Since my very first pitch, I’ve been saying “It’s Easier to Make a Movie than to Have the Hardest Conversation of Your Life.” Some people (like me) use art as a way to catalyze change, to force conversations and figure things out as they go along. When I’m writing about something, I have no choice but to do my homework, to be in integrity and also to wear my heart on my sleeve. I knew I would have to read books and interview people and be open, despite what people may think.
WMM: Out of the many films that you came across in the competition, why did you gravitate towards this project, Cate?
CC: I was initially drawn to this film project because of the cultural and multigenerational ingredients within the story that make it specifically unique, but within its particular perspective, it resonates more universally. Although we all come from different family situations, spiritual roots and formative environments, what we collectively share as human beings navigating the world of relationships, is the challenge of finding compatible partners, establishing honest communication, defining aspects of what makes us happy as individuals and what it takes to allow OTHERS to have THEIR freedom to choose whatever makes THEM happy. There is no single "one size fits all" formula that makes for healthy and sustaining relationships. Everyone comes with their own inherent needs and desires that vary greatly, and as times change and people continue to express and define themselves openly, we see more and more variety of taste, inclination and exploration.
WMM: How do the elements of your specific ethnicity and cultural context contribute to this story for you, Datgirl?
DS: Being a first generation person, you have a lot to live up to. When your parents are immigrants, you have to work harder and hustle more because more is expected of you. There is pressure to live up to all the reasons why your parents left where they were. “We didn’t leave (blank) so that our kids could be (blank, blank & blank).” I heard the exact same line from my script in Marvel’s Shang-Chi movie. So it’s hard to say to parents “I’m not a lawyer, I’m an artist. I’m not getting married, I’m Poly, or LGBT”. But despite what they went through, our lives are our own. Even if theirs were not. As a Middle Eastern girl in America, I have freedoms that the women in my family didn’t have, especially when it comes to love and sex. The women in my family married in their teens and it was often arranged. Some were love relationships, and some were not. And the only way you would ever have another lover in your life was after somebody died. I feel beyond lucky to have the freedom my family fought for.
WMM: How is this film different from any of the other films out there about polyamory?
DS: I can’t speak to what all other movies about polyamory are like because if I watched too many I’d throw in the towel on my first draft, but I can say that what I’ve seen represents Swinger culture, rather than Polyamory or other forms of non-monogamy. And there are A LOT.
Here is an Extensive Diagram:
One of our Non-Monogamy Consultants, Franklin Veaux co-wrote a book called “More Than Two” that was used in the tv series You. The show portrayed a couple who were swingers, and according to Franklin, swingers can be among the most conservative people who don’t practice polyamory and may even be threatened by it because they are emotionally monogamous. They are people who want sexual connections with others, but as a couple, are insulated from love relationships and emotional connections with other people. This is not to say this isn’t a good life choice by any means, but a couple who wants to have sexual adventures while remaining solely in love with one another is completely different from people who have multiple love relationships (some that are not even about sex) with different people.
Polyamory is about the idea that one love does not have to replace another. There are many different kinds of love. And sex. In some ways it can be unfair to ask one person to be everything to you. People fill different roles in our lives. It is the territorial aspects that make that hard when it comes to sex. And there are scientific arguments for both polyamory and monogamy. Monogamy only came about with the invention of agriculture, and with that, the flawed perspective that it is only men who want multiple partners. There is scientific evidence to the contrary, specifically in a book called “Sex At Dawn”, which we modeled the book co-written by two of our characters (ENM activists) after.
Other films about polyamory I have seen were written by men and can be focused on the sexual aspect of multiple relationships. This one is about a first generation middle eastern girl who wants to speak her heart through music, and falls in love with falling in love. Also, it’s about the very beginning of the poly experience. Her baby steps. So yes, she gets a lot of things wrong. All of the characters do. All are flawed, but infinitely lovable.
WMM: Why do you feel this story, this film, this main character's visibility is "of the time" and what impression do you hope to make with this film?
CC: This "alternative lifestyle" is a hot topic and one that we are realizing is more common than we expected. This was freely expressed even within the actors we auditioned who were drawn to the subject matter. There is a curiosity that is growing. We've talked to Polyamory experts, published writers, podcast hosts, and counselors specifically about the subject matter and we believe that this film will be on the crest of a whole awareness of new ways of approaching relationships within our current culture. We hope the film will be informative to those who know nothing about the subject matter and empowering to those already exploring other ways of building their personal lives and creating new kinds of partnerships.
WMM: What aspect of the film resonates with you most on a personal level?
CC: I think I resonate most with Brian's perspective because he is open, understanding and supportive of the love of his life, but sometimes you have to do what's best for YOU and if that means walking away or losing those who are most close to you in order to honor YOUR truth and THEIR freedom to be who they are, then so be it. In our ever changing world with so many different walks of life who approach creating purpose and meaning in their own unique way, it's important to find ways to be open and accepting of individual choices while hopefully honoring and respecting the humanity we all share.
WMM: What do you feel are the most unique aspects of this story? The characters? The perspective?
CC: All of the above! There are many facets to this story and dimension to these characters, so the goal is to educate, enlighten, entertain, and engage our audiences as they embark on this story ride with us. Hopefully people will see some element of themselves in the characters they meet along the way, learn something new about choices other kinds of people make as individuals, and embrace the essence of what we all share in common.
WMM: What is the most exciting aspect of telling this story for you?
DS: This is my most vulnerable and heartfelt project so far. It feels both scary and empowering.
CC: Creating something new and fresh with depth, a distinct point of view regarding a provocative subject matter, and doing so without resorting to common or already-been-seen encounters and situations. Being stylistically imaginative and innovative in our approach is also exciting to challenge ourselves to create. I want to celebrate the mystery of attraction.
WMM: Who is your favorite character and why?
CC: Lili, because we are going on her Alice in Wonderland Rollercoaster ride WITH her and we get to enjoy and engage with ALL the other interesting and surprising other characters along the way!
DS: Picking a favorite character in a movie about Polyamory is a hilarious irony! We love them all for different reasons LOL! Filmmaking is like polyamory in that you spend “quality time” with each character separately - writing them and filming them in a chunk of time. All of Lili’s lovers feel like people she wants to be like, they all represent some quality she hopes will rub off on her. We can’t reveal who she ends up with but she is certainly great at falling in love with everyone.
WMM: Datgirl, where have you found your inspiration and influences in creating this film? Form art? From the media in general? From culture?
DS: Real people in my life. Although, I’ve had to tell those close to me “This isn’t YOU, it only looks like you!” Characters have to serve the storyline, which is why they end up so far from the original person who inspired them. And then once the Real People become characters, my biggest Inspiration are the Actors. I could never be a novelist or a journalist, because writing for great actors who bring the material to life is hands-down the most rewarding writing one could ever do.
In terms of artistic influences, our film has an interesting blend of comedy, romance, fashion, club culture and jazz swing musicality. I think of our aesthetic as a Neon Cabaret. One of the most epic aspects of working with Cate is her choreography, theater, and musical background. We both resonated with scenes in The Great Gatsby, which captured the sensuality and intimacy of “the party” with a classic stylized feel, with a score that blended pop, electro, and swing. We’ve been watching lots of electro swing music videos, tribal house, burlesque, Bob Fosse, stylized love scenes, intimate party scenes, and neon club scenes. My inspirations as an actor/writer who started out performing one-woman theater shows at Fringe Festivals, and producing a few web series I wrote and starred in, are shows like I May Destroy You, Insecure, Fleabag, and Girls, which have put my career trajectory on the map as a viable goal to achieve.
WMM: Cate, what cinematic inspirations are you leaning into in telling this story? What other mediums of art influence this vision?
CC: I have been doing a lot of research on polyamory and the psychology behind certain kinds of relationships. I fill my creative imagination with images found in artwork, photographs, drawings, and real life to inform ideas for composition, dramatic effect, and tone. I listen to a lot of different styles of music, study other films, and learn from conversations shared with people I respect AND new encounters, always open to unexpected sources of inspiration and pearls of creative perspective to add to what will be the final product.
WMM: How do you plan to bring this script to life, Cate? What are some key elements / sensibilities to your vision?
CC: I want to establish the world of our main character Lili, her life as a DJ and her family dynamics, so we can better understand where she comes from and invite the audience into her day to day personal relationship with the love of her life, Brian, and what unfolds from there. There are many colorful characters and dynamic circumstances and loving support inherent in the life that Lili has created at this point in her journey, and yet she is restless, searching and wanting more. We will bring the story to life by combining some storytelling devices using narrative voice overs, some "breaking the fourth wall" talking directly to the camera, and some illustrating through diary entries and artistically expressing through song lyrics and music.
WMM: So… what is the tone of this film?
DS: Neon Cabaret! It is an interesting blend of romantic comedy, poly education, middle eastern family drama, and retro, stylized music and dance club world. I have no idea what that tone is but we shall see.
CC: Joyful, heartfelt, seductive, humorous, romantic, intelligent & quirky. We're looking at it as a Poly Rom Com.
WMM: How do you think having a female gaze (female writer and director) on the subject matter influences the storytelling on this film?
DS: A female gaze on polyamory, sex-positivity and the quest for freedom is an interesting point-of-view. It is not the typical “male who wants to hook up with tons of girls” story or “girl looking for Prince Charming” trope. At its core, it is about how women - or at least a couple of us - feel about not only love, but freedom. In many ways the story is about agency and empowerment more than love and sex.
Surrounding this project I have more women creatives influencing me than I ever have in my career. The first draft started with many of my romantic experiences. By this twenty-second draft, I’ve been so stoked to hear about and be inspired by Cate’s experiences and stories. Then we had a female RomCom dramaturg come on board and she helped pull the “falling in love with love” aspect out of the story. At the same time I started studying with a female acting teacher Gloria Gifford, who teaches classic movies that portray how a woman can fall under a man’s spell without losing her power. And I have a female costume designer Jordan Terra creating a specialty wardrobe for me, thirty-five costume changes, to tell a story with fashion. This would certainly be a completely different story without these feminine influences.
WMM: Why are you excited about collaborating with Cate on this project, Datgirl? What does she bring to the table that you feel is needed in terms of her talent or perspective?
DS: Working with Cate really began in August of 2021, as she coached me through the competition and then evolved as we began collaborating on the script in October, followed by an extensive casting process. Words cannot express how lucky I am to work with her! She is on my daily gratitude list every day! She has such attention to detail and an incredible wealth of experience of shows she has directed and choreographed, which gives her such a phenomenal visual story-telling perspective — she really sees everything in a finely tuned manner. And I am soooo excited to be working with her on the music and dance numbers that will be in the movie!!
I’m inspired by her directing style, and how well she treats actors, diving deep into everyone’s resume and reels, really looking into people to see what they have to offer. It is no wonder that we have actors willing to fly halfway around the world on a break just to work with her. She is also a multi-hyphenate and loves to work all the time like me, so we share tenacity (22 drafts!) and the ability to be thorough on all counts. We both like to be ahead of the game and not leave things to the last minute. And often when one of us can’t break through a situation, the other one can, and we are able to keep each other positive during pre-production, when some days feel like a bunch of fires to put out. Cate has taught me how to raise the bar as high as I can, to not to be afraid to ask that of others, and to do everything with top-top quality and attention to detail.
WMM: Who is your primary audience and who do you hope to attract that is not already in your intended demographic?
DS: One of our consultants said that it is always the younger generation that are impacted by relationship films like this. I hope it’s a girl-power movie. The characters find strength in being vulnerable and I hope that is a new trait in heroines - that through wearing our hearts on our sleeve, we become empowered.
One in five people in the U.S. and Canada are engaging in some form of non-monogamy. I think the target audience are people who are interested in seeing what kinds of relationship styles are out there. Also dance music enthusiasts: Ravers, Burners & Festival-heads!
WMM: What are you hoping to achieve in telling this story?
DS: I would love to show that being poly is not just being selfish, or wanting to have your cake and eat it too, or being obsessed with sex. Some people are just wired for more than one great love of their life. Some people take two dates to the prom (Franklin Veaux lol!)
My hope is that people watch our movie and when the credits roll, they can turn to whomever they are with and have that hard conversation. Maybe it’s “hey I had that same thing happen to me” or maybe it’s “Hey Mom, this is my boyfriend and this is… NOT the waiter”.
WMM: Art has a way of moving the needle in terms of thought-leadership and bringing conversations to the forefront. What impact do you think this story will have on American culture? On film culture?
DS: Media and entertainment absolutely move the needle forward, impacting the “Overton Window” of what the majority will accept. It’s happened with cultural appropriation, interracial marriage, LGBTQ rights, and now it is time for a conversation about how and who we love. And how many.
The case for a Polyamory conversation within the media lies in the rates of Infidelity. More than 70% of people in relationships are impacted by cheating and all the dishonesty and guilt and betrayal that comes with it. Also it lies in our mortality rate. Consider that our generation will easily live to a hundred years old, if not beyond. To quote Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” - the survival rate being fidelity!
In “The Unicorn Diaries”, Lili asks “Is this the last person I’m ever going to have sex with? For the rest of my life?” I’m not saying this is a question that Everyone should ask themselves, but the more I started talking to people, I realized I wasn’t the only one asking it. I think that is why the film was green-lit so quickly. Everyone is interested in the topic. Everyone, from all generations, weigh in. I had a layover in El Salvador and met a group of Marines stationed at the hotel. When I told them about the story, one guy shared everything about his girlfriend, whom he had not seen in four months. He asked me, “What do you think, is she sleeping with this guy friend of hers?” I wanted to say “of course she absolutely is … and does that have to be a deal breaker?” But it’s Just. Too. Soon. That is where movies and television come in.
WMM: What does your ideal scenario of success look like with this film, Cate?
CC: That people will love it, festivals will select and recognize it with awards (!) and that distributors will take notice, want to buy and market the final product on major streaming sites! Why not right?! There is A LOT of content "out there" and why not this film too?? That's our dream in any case ;-)
by Sapna Gandhi
Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.