“Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood is going to do. Ultimately, it’s always driven by how to make the most money. Fortunately, this isn’t about making money.” –Dylan McDermott of Sugar

Actor Dylan McDermott for years wanted to tell the story of Sugar, a tale of a teenage runaway working in an underworld of despair. And now The Practice star is working with a team of filmmakers connected to Ringling College of Art and Design, and will direct the pilot for the new web series in Sarasota in late May. "This was developed and funded here," says producer David Semkhor, founder of Semkhor Productions. "This is an expansion of the Digital Filmmaking Studio Lab. It's so much more than just the students working on this." Now McDermott and Shapiro are working the human trafficking experts at Selah Freedom on a documentary paired with the fictional Sugar. We spoke with McDermott and producer David Shapiro, founder of Semkhor Productions, about the project and the importance of the Sarasota Bradenton area as a setting.


What exactly is the concept behind SugarDylan McDermott It was something that was in my head for a long time. I came up with this idea of Sugar, a young runaway girl, and she ends up here in South Florida trying to make her way. It’s really an empowerment story at the end of the day about a young girl faced with a million options, and a lot of darkness and predators, and she finds herself along the way and becomes an empowered woman. David loved the idea, and Ringling loved the idea, and now we are going to shoot. David Shapiro The concept is for her to be a 15-year-old who can maybe pass for 18 in a town like Sarasota where the dynamic between older men and young women is not so healthy. It could pull into very dark places. And because Dylan has been in TV so long, he knows how to make a good narrative based on experience.

Why does it make sense to shoot here instead of in California or New York? McDermott Sarasota is a funny mix of light and dark. At first glance, it looks like a very wealthy community, a beach community. It’s this little utopia here. But all of the sudden if you scratch a little deeper, you see a darker element involved. Florida is the third largest sex trafficking state in the US. When you look here, you find an underworld.

You will be pairing this show with informative video content from Selah Freedom. What made that local nonprofit the right partner for this effort? McDermott They are a local community organization dealing with a lot of sex trafficking stuff, which is a subject the show definitely brings up. It’s a great collaboration. It’s grassroots and [Selah Freedom] is part of the community and really part of the show. It became natural, really. There is nothing forced about the relationship. They loved my idea and I loved who they were as an organization. It was one of those beautiful, natural relationships that happened. Shapiro It’s a little groundbreaking to have content so tied in to this nonprofit and a little unusual to have that direct energy and passion for social change aligned. It is fundamental interaction between people. And I have learned so much about this subject working with this group.

How is the Internet a particularly apt distribution channel for this project? McDermott What’s great about the Internet and the web is that there is a rawness to it. I like that rawness and I like the youth of the Internet. I like them finding the show, and that there is a sort of an underground thing that happens with the Internet. That’s what I was interested in—breaking new ground.

What is important about the subject of sex trafficking that needs to be explored? Shapiro Everything is a transaction of some sort. What the sex industry does is reduce that transaction to the most base level imaginable, and once you dive into that, it is hard to see anything normal, on both sides of the equation. This experience has opened my eyes to how damaging it actually is. There is a growing trend in media to present sex work as kind of a cool Bohemian lifestyle with no recognition to the destruction it leads to for the women. The reality is immensely bad. So what we plan to do is a multimedia discourse on this industry and to wrap that around this story of Sugar.