Claire Ayoub ’11 Creates a Feel-Good Film Empire

Claire Ayoub stands outside a Sundance sign with her arms outstretched.
Image credit: Claire Ayoub
Author  E.B. Bartels '10
Published on 

How do you get the equivalent of an M.B.A. and an M.F.A. at the same time, without going to either business or art school? And throw in an M.Ed. and a psychology degree while you’re at it? Write, direct, and produce your own feature film, according to Claire Ayoub ’11, who was a Middle Eastern Studies major. Wellesley has a rich history of alums writing for television and movies, and Ayoub is joining the fold with Empire Waist—a heartfelt comedy about teens learning to love their bodies through fashion design—which she just completed filming this past fall.

Ayoub got the germ of the idea in November 2014 right before moving from New York to Los Angeles. At the time, she was writing for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and she composed a series of personal essays called “Notes to My 12 Year Old Self.” In one of them, Take the Plunge, Ayoub grappled with how much she had loved swimming as a kid, but how that love evaporated the older she got and the more ashamed and anxious she felt about her body. “The idea of walking across the pool deck where people could see you was nauseating,” writes Ayoub in the piece. “If you could barely look at yourself in a mirror, how could anybody else?” Ayoub encourages her younger self, saying: “Loving who you are isn’t always easy. It’s much easier to focus on the things you wish you could change. At 25 years old, I am finally learning to accept the notion that I can do the things I love regardless of my size. I knew the perfect place to start. I went back to my happy place—swimming—the first thing I gave up.”

Ayoub heard from many Smart Girls readers who shared that they had quit swimming, running, wearing shorts, all kinds of things that had previously brought them joy, just as she had. It got Ayoub thinking that perhaps there could be a movie version of this piece to make those struggling feel less alone. “I wanted to make something for all of us,” she said.

She wrote a draft of the script in 2015, the story of a young fashion designer who can make amazing clothes but lacks the confidence to wear them herself. But her manager at the time thought there were “too many female characters” and that the hilarious lead teacher was “too funny for a woman,” suggesting a famous male comic play the part instead. Burnt out and frustrated, Ayoub put the script away. “Writing that script stirred up a lot of feelings for me,” she said. “I quit comedy and went to therapy.” During that period away from the comedy scene, Ayoub also came out as gay. “I realized I didn’t feel comfortable telling people they could love themselves as they are if I couldn’t do it myself,” she said.

The 2016 election inspired Ayoub to get back into comedy, specifically to make heartfelt and humorous content especially for women and girls. She returned to New York in 2017, recruited her friends from Upright Citizens Brigade, and created a web series called Your Hair Looks Great Today with filmmaker and producer Lizzy Bryce.

It was Bryce who nudged Ayoub to revisit Empire Waist, and whose notes on the original script reminded her just how much she loved these characters. Ayoub challenged herself to revise the script, culminating in a live reading on Galentine’s Day 2019. “I bought all this wine and chocolatey desserts because I figured, if everyone hated the script, at least they could compliment the snacks and leave,” Ayoub joked. But the reading went great. Ayoub’s brother, sister-in-law, and co-workers played various roles, friends and Wellesley alums filled out the audience, and the story of self-love and friendship seemed to resonate with everyone.

In spring 2019, Ayoub faced a different challenge entirely. Just two months after that first live reading, the educational non-profit where she worked as a copywriter was going through major layoffs. She could either hunt for another full-time copywriting job in New York or take a chance and commit herself full-time to making Empire Waist a reality. She met with as many people in the industry as she could to learn about the process of independent filmmaking, and briefly considered selling the script. In the end, she didn’t feel comfortable handing off Empire Waist to someone else and losing creative control, so she opted to seek independent funding in order to produce and direct the film on her own. She moved back in with her parents in Connecticut, worked remote copywriting gigs, and focused all her energy on her film. “Choosing to bet on myself like that was the scariest decision in my life,” she said. She understood that it wouldn’t be easy—and that was before she knew she’d be filming during a pandemic.

The script was already generating buzz on The Black List, a website where aspiring film and TV writers showcase their work to get feedback from members of the industry. Working alongside producer Crystal Collins, Ayoub continued to develop the script through The Black List Feature Lab, working with the screenwriters of Legally Blonde and Bring It On, as well as holding 17 live readings across the country in 2019. She also learned about financing and film development through the Cassian Elwes Independent Filmmaking Fellowship at Sundance in 2020. “I looked at the whole experience as a chance to learn as much as I humanly could,” said Ayoub. “Instead of thinking that this was something I had to do perfectly, I felt that as long as I was working hard and trying to learn as much as possible, it was worthwhile.”

In 2020, United Talent Agency approached Ayoub and Collins about representing the project, and went on to introduce them to Wayfarer Studios, the full service studio and production company co-founded by Justin Baldoni and Steve Sarowitz whose mission is to develop and finance projects that serve as agents for social change. Wayfarer financed and produced Empire Waist alongside Ayoub’s Try Anyway Productions. Some big-name stars signed onto the movie: Rainn Wilson, Missi Pyle, Jolene Purdy, and Mia Kaplan. And, in summer 2021, Ayoub and her team held a nationwide casting call with casting director Rori Bergman to discover talent for their teen ensemble.“It was so dope!” said Ayoub. “We found two of our young actors through the casting call, and they live within 30 minutes of each other in Minnesota. I don’t know what’s in the water in Minnesota, but goddamn it makes for amazing talent.”

Ayoub felt it was crucial that she create a safe environment on set. During her team’s daily health and safety meetings, Ayoub made sure that the cast and crew knew they had the power to speak up and that they’d never be punished for sharing how they felt. “This movie is about empowerment and self-love and people taking care of each other,” Ayoub told her team. “Even if this turns out to be the most beautiful film ever on-screen, if I know it was a nightmare to work on behind-the-scenes, I will consider that my own personal failure.”

“I probably overdid it,” Ayoub said, laughing. “Everyone was like, ‘Claire, we get it, we feel powerful, leave us alone.’”

Ayoub looked out for her actors, especially the young ones, and especially when they had to film particularly challenging or upsetting scenes. “Writing the script had stirred up so much hard stuff for me,” Ayoub said, “that I couldn’t expect it not to stir up difficult emotions for the cast and crew, too.”

Filming wrapped in December 2021 at American High in Liverpool, N.Y., and Ayoub is now editing her director’s cut. (“I have a color-coded spreadsheet of all my favorite takes, because I am a Wendy,” Ayoub said, laughing.) After that, she will work with Wayfarer Studios to create the final cut, and from there they will look for a distributor for the movie. But no matter what comes next, Ayoub is glowing with the success of the experience so far. Whether she is gushing about her head of the production design Caitlin Williams, or her cinematographer Maria Rusche, or the owner of the Crab N Go in Liverpool, where the Empire Waist team would hang out for dinner on weekends, it’s clear that Ayoub has surrounded herself with people who share her enthusiasm and values.

“Something I learned from Wellesley is that we have to look out for each other. Often we only want to share the good things and big achievements, but we have to go through the trenches together, too,” said Ayoub. “You cannot do it by yourself. And if anyone takes sole credit for making a movie, they are totally lying. It’s a team effort, through and through.”