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When Jessie Kahnweiler tried to get funding for "The Skinny," a web series based partly on her own life, she was rejected time and again.
"Literally, everyone in Hollywood" said no, according to Kahnweiler.
Her series, an unflinching, biting comedy about a young woman named Jessie who wants to be a YouTube star, was too weird, everyone told her. Along with exploring her character's relationships with friends, lovers and parents, "The Skinny" delves into something that isn't common fodder: bulimia.
There are scenes of her character vomiting on screen, and all the issues revolving around eating disorders control, guilt, shame, self-loathing and secrecy are fair game. It's funny, and so brutally honest it can make viewers squirm, but that's what she intended.
"I really wanted to make something that was going to speak to my experience in a real way," said Kahnweiler, who lives in Los Angeles, in a telephone interview. "The issue of food is still taboo."
She had been working in the film industry in L.A. after graduating from the University of Redlands when she decided to tell her story. The project got a boost when Illeana Douglas, who plays Kahnweiler's mother in the series, agreed to help produce it. Douglas has experience creating web series projects and has long been committed to mentoring young women in film.
"I thought the subject matter was really fascinating," Douglas said in a telephone interview from Park City. "I never saw anything that had been done on bulimia or eating disorders."
Douglas, a well-known character actor in film and television (she won an Emmy nomination for her work in "Six Feet Under" and appeared in "GoodFellas," "Cape Fear" and "Ghost World," among others), said she also saw an opportunity to help a struggling young filmmaker.
"I very much believe you can't talk about mentorship, you actually have to help young filmmakers get their movie produced," said Douglas, 50. "What was really gratifying for me in the process is, once in a while, something like this works."
Kickstarter provided enough funding for the pilot; soon after, the series gained the support of Jill Soloway of Wifey.tv, who created and writes the award-winning series "Transparent," and of Refinery29, a female-centric digital lifestyle media company (http://www.refinery29.com) that produces original content and will air the series beginning Wednesday, Jan. 27. The six-part series debuts in a special event Tuesday, Jan. 26, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.
Soloway, who recently won a Golden Globe for directing for "Transparent," described Kahnweiler as an "undeniable talent."
"She is the trifecta writer, director and performer who is so unabashedly true to herself, honest, clownish and an amazing heroine for women who want to be the star of the movies for their own lives," Soloway said via email. "Everyone struggles with food, everyone struggles with shame. Jessie allows us in on her vulnerability. It is so funny, so human, so beautiful."
Kahnweiler credits Douglas, Soloway and the other women she worked with for giving her the confidence to find her voice.
"Emotionally, it did so much for my self-esteem and self-worth," she said of the conversations and coaching. She described "The Skinny" as "the most rewarding, challenging and terrifying thing I've done as an artist and a human being."
While Kahnweiler said the character is based on her experiences, the story is not autobiographical. She said her childhood in Atlanta was fairly typical and described herself as a happy kid. But she had always been "very sensitive" and as she grew into adolescence, she suffered from depression and anxiety. When she was 16, she observed a classmate purging after eating and decided to try it herself.
Bulimia became part of her life, but wasn't something she really worried about. "It just felt like an extension of myself. It was just something I did," she said.
But bulimia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by cycles of binge eating and self-induced vomiting. Many bulimics also abuse laxatives. Health consequences include electrolyte and chemical imbalances that can affect the heart and other major organs, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (http://www.MyNEDA.org). The esophagus can become inflamed or even rupture, and tooth decay can result from stomach acids released during vomiting. Approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of adolescent and young adult women are affected.
The most effective treatment is some form of psychotherapy or counseling.
Kahnweiler said she finally realized her "coping mechanism" had become a liability and sought treatment several years ago when she was 27. But recovering from bulimia is a challenge because the trigger food is legal and it's everywhere. Kahnweiler, along with Refinery29, is partnering with NEDA in an effort to help other people with eating disorders.
Diana Denza, youth outreach coordinator for NEDA, praised Kahnweiler for her willingness to share her struggle.
"Jessie's show is really bringing eating disorders to light," said Denza, who has interviewed Kahnweiler for the organization's website (http://www.nationaleatingdisorder.org). "Eating disorders really thrive in secrecy. She is really pulling out all the stops and talking about her experiences in an open and honest way."
Now that Kahnweiler has a forum for her series, and has been embraced by Sundance, she is hopeful for a second season of "The Skinny." She's already begun writing it.
"It's been a long journey," she said. "I have a lot more story to tell." "The Skinny"
This six-part web series, which debuts Jan. 27 on http://www.refinery29.com, screens at Sundance on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 11:30 a.m., at the Egyptian Theatre, Park City. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with series creator Jessie Kahnweiler; executive producers Jill Soloway (writer/director of the series "Transparent"), Andrea Sperling and Rebecca Odes; executive producer and cast member Illeana Douglas; and Amy Emmerich, chief content officer for the website Refinery29. Resources
The National Eating Disorders Association (http://www.nationaleatingdisorder.org) is a resource for people suffering from eating disorders, their families and the professionals who treat them. It offers a helpline staffed by trained volunteers who can assess options for coping with an eating disorder: 1-800-931-2237.