FRAUD Director Zen Pace “Both Shira and Andre are full, complicated human beings, and both Dana and Babak were able to bounce off each other and create layered meaning within the story”

Director Zen Pace’s debut narrative short FRAUD starring Dana Aliya Levinson (STARZ’s American Gods) and Babak Tafti (Showtime’s Super Pumped), subverts the crime thriller genre by centering marginalized characters grappling with identity, love, and immigrant experiences. Levinson also wrote this timely tale. The Tribeca Film Festival is FRAUD’s World Premiere and the film is screening in competition.

First of all I would like to congratulate you on getting into Tribeca Film Festival, what a great achievement.

Dana Aliya Levinson: Thank you so much!

Zen Pace: Thank you! It’s an honor really. I went last year when they were doing outdoor seating showings. There is such a clear sense of community and pride for what this organization offers. A big thank you to the team, and shoutout to Sharon, Ben, Madison, Karen, Lucy, and Jose who’ve already been so amazing with us. RAY

This is quite an interesting story, where did the inspiration for this film come from? 

DAL: So, I come from what I call a ‘highly loving but highly dysfunctional Jewish family™’. We’ve always struggled financially. I’m careful not to use the word poor, since we weren’t below the poverty line, but we were incredibly financially unstable and occasionally rode close to it. 

I was working at a bar at the time, saving money to get my adult life started. My father owns a dental practice, and one month he couldn’t pay payroll. So, he asked if he could use the money I had been saving. I gave it to him, which was really crushing at the time. I will note that he did pay me back! Though when he asked, I didn’t believe that would happen.

That day, a customer came into my bar. Her credit card didn’t swipe. I did manual entry. Now, I have a ridiculously good memory for numbers. So, as I typed in her number, I had the fleeting thought, ‘what if I steal her credit card number right now to pay myself back the money I just gave my dad?’ 

I didn’t! But the very next thought was ‘who’s that character?’ And so, Shira Rose Loewenstein was born. I consider her an alter-ego of sorts, or a ‘Sliding Doors’ version of me.

Dana, your character in the film has a unique talent to remember numbers as music, I must ask, is that an actual talent? Where did that idea come from? 

This does actually come from real life! I’m not quite the savant that Shira is, but the seed of the idea is from true experience. 

I’m a lifelong musician. I began studying piano and music theory when I was in third grade. I also have a condition called dyscalculia. My mom has it as well. Basically, it’s dyslexia with numbers. It was noticed by a math teacher who saw on a test that I did all of the equations correctly but arrived at the wrong answer because I kept switching the numbers around as the equation went on. 

Because of this, I went to a special tutor who taught me how to do math extremely quickly in my mind so that I didn’t risk messing up equations by writing and reading numbers out on a page. Music theory came into play here, as I would imagine the numbers sometimes like music intervals. For those who know music theory, every note in a scale is assigned a number.

Thanks to that, I can do math in my head and memorize numbers quite fast. As Zen can attest, the other day I did some math for them in my mind in about five seconds flat… which they said was ‘terrifying’. It’s my favorite party trick!

This does actually come from real life! I’m not quite the savant that Shira is, but the seed of the idea is from true experience. 

Zen and Dana, was there anything particularly difficult to film?

DAL: So, fun fact, I was extremely sick with a non-COVID upper respiratory illness while filming. But in complete transparency with the cast and crew about me being sick, we decided to move forward. Indie filming is always stressful. Add filming in a pandemic and being the writer/star and being ill, it was a whole lot of layers.

So, for me the first day was the hardest. That was my sickest day and it got so bad I truly didn’t think I could get through the shoot. Zen and Gretchen, one of our producers, talked me off the ledge thank God. We had to re-organize the first two days to maximize the amount of time I could be at home and resting to try to make sure I got through the rest of our weekend. Zen, and our entire crew, were just incredible on that front shifting gears on the fly to make sure we still got what we needed in what was now a half day less time.

It was also occasionally absurd. I did one of those IV vitamin drips to get me through the weekend. But while we were filming at the André’s apartment location, we were only allowed a certain number of people inside the building, and we didn’t have room for an additional medic. 

So, I was literally sitting outside on a folding chair on the streets of Brooklyn in the middle of the day with an IV drip in my arm. We got lots of strange looks. It was hilarious. The things we do for our art!

ZP: Quite a bit. The entire filming process was difficult and really tested me as a director. Which I’m really grateful for because I really understood what it means to be a director on this set. Beyond the artistic, you have to be a manager, and have an incredible amount of empathy while also knowing what you want. Those things clicked in on this film because they had to. 

Time was our big issue.  We had 4 shoot days and had to turn that into 3 and a half. Things got tight, quick. Which means I needed to quickly strategize shots and interrogate myself if I was satisfied with each scene before we moved on. And once I was, I’d always ask for one more for safety. Cause you know, I’m a Libra.

I think if I didn’t have my experience with documentaries, this would have been a lot harder. In documentary I’ve grown accustomed to pivoting based on the needs of the subject. So, when I found it we had to lose a half day, I was able to pivot. For us creatives, sometimes that’s hard. We can be so precious about our shots and have to have it one way. But that can also be our Achilles heel if we’re not careful. 

The entire filming process was difficult and really tested me as a director. Which I’m really grateful for because I really understood what it means to be a director on this set. Beyond the artistic, you have to be a manager, and have an incredible amount of empathy while also knowing what you want

Zen Pace

Zen, can you tell us a little bit about the cast? 


Both Shira and Andre are full, complicated human beings, and both Dana and Babak were able to bounce off each other and create layered meaning within the story. Moments that weren’t there before. This is what’s so beautiful about this process. Each piece helps build on top of another. 

So much of acting is reverberation, in the moment, and in the entirety of the film, we feel Shira’s presence and even earlier choices. One stunning scene I love dearly is when Shira and Andre are sitting next to each other. Shira says “the longer I do this, the longer I have no idea who I am.” 

We see Dana and Babak’s characters both become deeply honest with each other, and that transition had to be perfect. Because just a scene earlier Shira was scared for her life. It’s a testament to both actors’ abilities to create an energetic flow that makes us see how these fractures people can learn to trust each other. 

We see Dana and Babak’s characters both become deeply honest with each other, and that transition had to be perfect

How did you both get into filmmaking? 

DAL: I had a bit of a circuitous route. I started out in the theater writing world as a composer and lyricist. I was a Dramatists Guild Fellow and had a bunch of work produced both in NYC and also in Paris. I began to get frustrated with the theater world. I felt that it didn’t have space for the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and so I began to set my sights on the film world.

This budding interest also coincided with my getting sober. Zen and I met in an AA meeting when we each had less than a year of sobriety. We quickly became ‘litter mates’ as they sometimes say in the rooms. But in that first year, which it’s strange to look back on with a wistful nostalgia at this point, you also start to ask yourself, ‘what do I really want to do with my life’? I had spent so long running from my life that I hadn’t given myself the space to find out. I had said I wanted to go into film and television, but I hadn’t really made a meaningful go of it or explored why exactly I was interested in it.

I’m going to toot Zen’s horn a little bit here. My deep love of filmmaking and the answer to that question arrived when I met them. While I had already started writing in the film and television space, they have a way of looking at cinematic storytelling that has taught me so much just by virtue of being their friend and chosen family. Their passion more deeply ignited my passion.

Now, I’ve been a television staff-writer, and the pilot script of “FRAUD”, which this short was based on, was a finalist for the 2019 Sundance Episodic Lab, and was selected by The GLAAD List in partnership with The Black List as one of the top eight unmade LGBTQ pilots of this year.

ZP: I moved from Flint, Michigan to New York without a plan. The schools I was accepted into I couldn’t afford. So, I went to Brooklyn College. I read somewhere it was the “poor man’s Harvard.” I was poor but always had bougie taste. So, that won me over. I heard they had a great film program, so I joined that. I learned a lot, and most importantly, learned what I enjoyed about film. My tastes. I was introduced to the brilliance of Kurosawa. I saw his Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood. All those small choices led to this captivating and emotional ending. What a beautiful thing. To be there with an audience, hold their hand, and show them a world. I knew in that moment; this is what I wanted to do. 

After college I did a lot of acting classes. For years I was taking different classes, I even went to the British Academy of Dramatic Arts on scholarship. I love acting. I firmly believe to be a good director you need to appreciate the craftmanship involved in it. During this time though I was also deep in addiction. I came back from BADA with all this knowledge but in some deep depression. I knew I had to do something. So, I got sober. 

I took a job at a pizzeria and just focused on staying sober. Thank God. Because that introduced me into my love for filmmaking again. I got a camera and filmed my friend dancing. Edited it and thought “I like this. I miss this. I wanna do this.” After that, the rest is history. Stayed sober. Met Dana in an AA meeting. Started working on a lot of documentaries that helped me hone my ability to think on the fly and create elevated doc pieces for companies. 

Is there a possibility of turning this unique thriller into a feature? 

DAL: As I touched on in the previous question, no, not a feature. But! This short is also a proof of concept for a pilot script that I wrote of the same name that was featured on this year’s GLAAD List. The heart of the story is Shira and André, which is why the short really zeroes in on their arc. However, the pilot has much more of Shira’s family, and much more of the crime ring that André works for. We’ll be taking it out to pitch soon! I’m confident the world will see how special this story is and how it combines the honest and authentic romance and queer love of a show like “Heartstopper” with the crime drama of a show like “Breaking Bad” or “Ozark”. With just the reaction to the short, we know it has a built in audience.

This short is also a proof of concept for a pilot script that I wrote of the same name that was featured on this year’s GLAAD List

Dana Aliya Levinson

ZP: While it won’t be a feature, it is definitely going to be an episodic TV show. I’m looking forward to watching it get its wings and directing episodes!

While it won’t be a feature, it is definitely going to be an episodic TV show

Zen Pace

What is next for you both? 

DAL: Right now, we’re collaborating on a feature script entitled “JUDE”. It takes place in a Jewish family’s home over Yom Kippur and is a surrealist psychological thriller about atonement, grief, and co-dependency.

ZP: I’m so excited for “JUDE”. There isn’t anything like it out there. And simply, we need to see a lot more trans characters that move beyond transition tropes. Trans people are full humans and while being “trans” is a part of us, it’s not the defining part of our humanity. That needs to be reflected in film starting now. We deserve that.

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