When it comes to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen there are cult-like super-fans, and then there’s Zara Meerza. Many who call themselves fans of the minimalist Birkin-toting twins either love them for their nostalgic on-screen roles like Holiday in the Sun, Passport to Paris, and New York Minute or their high-fashion CFDA Award-winning label, The Row. For Meerza, she falls into both categories, which led her to take her fandom to another level and fuse it into her career.
Meerza released her latest documentary, The Twins, a few days after the sisters’ 36th birthday. (Gemini twins!) The unconventional take on the pop culture documentary tracks the Olsen twins’ longevity in the limelight and answers the questions: Was it fame? Was it fashion? What is it that draws us in? What is it about them?
The Indian-British filmmaker’s new work is available to view now on WeTransfer’s award-winning digital arts platform, WePresent. While this marks her first piece on her favorite twins, she’s worked on projects for the BBC, HBO, BFI, Sky Arts, Arts Council UK, and Warp Films across feature films, festivals, interactive, VR and TV. Her latest work includes the feminist dark comedy The Cramps, and a TV drama about Joseph Pulitzer and the birth of Yellow Journalism, titled, Yellow, to name a few.
Following the premiere last week of the highly anticipated documentary in partnership with WeTransfer, GRAZIA USA caught with the keen Olsen observer, who was the one to actually to kick off the interview with a question very important to her: What is your favorite Olsen movie?
GRAZIA: Oh gosh. I have so many that I’m obsessed with. I think New York Minute is probably one of my favorites for sure, but also Passport to Paris was great. How about you?
ZARA MEERZA: For me, it would be way too hard to narrow down. But I do really love all the traveling ones.
G: What was your earliest memory when you first started to fall in love with the Olsen twins?
ZM: I think the first encounter I really had with them was with watching Two of a Kind because we didn’t have Full House in the UK. So I wasn’t really close to any of that or at the time, the direct-to-video To Grandmother’s House We Go, Double, Double Toil and Trouble. Those ones weren’t on my radar as much.
It was Two of a Kind that was on after school in England, and then I would go to Canada every summer to visit my grandparents in the age where we still had Blockbuster. My granny noted them on the shelves, and I started watching all the direct-to-video ones and just completely fell in love with them.
G: When did you decide to turn your love and obsession for the Olsen twins into a career?
ZM: I’ve been working in documentary for a while, and I was at a film festival and was talking to a bunch of my friends about how often at film festivals, you end up watching a lot of very sad films that are incredibly meaningful, comical, and how I really wanted to work on something that was kind of in a warmer space in terms of both the process and the end result.
These friends just so happened to also be people who were obsessed with Mary-Kate and Ashley. So we were talking about that, and we were just like, “Why were we so obsessed with Mary-Kate and Ashley?” I thought that by applying this analysis to this love that so many people had, especially me, it would be both a really wonderful experience creatively in the process, but also just a way of creating something warm, and bringing people to documentary that might not normally watch it with the vehicle of the Olsens’ films.
G: Have you done anything else Olsen-related in your career, or is this your first jump into really making it something more than a personal obsession, like sharing it more with the world?
ZM: Yeah, this is the first thing. We’re going to turn it into a feature, so we start filming that. There was just so much we wanted to get into, but the film was initially meant to only be seven minutes. We were like, “We can’t do it. It has to be double the length of that.” So we are going to expand on a lot of the things that we touch on and also include some of the films that we didn’t include in this one.
I’m looking forward to digging more into those films. It’s so interesting revisiting them. On the first watch, you’re like, “This is just nostalgia.” And on the second watch, you kind of watch it with all the experience you had in. It’s really interesting being able to do that now and even to think if I was to rewatch all of these films 10 years from now how that experience would change.
G: How was that process of creating the film? I’m sure it took a lot of deep-diving and really pulling things from everywhere.
ZM: We had a really incredible archival producer who is really, really skilled at knowing where to look for things. None of these films are online streaming. You have to either buy them on Amazon or you just have to have had the VHS tapes. So being able to bring back some of that footage to the internet felt like a really special thing to do for other fans.
I kind of worked with her and our associate producer to put together ideas or memories of where things might be and clips that we had seen and then also write an archival brief where I was like, “I want to find images of them when they were younger as well as the older ones, and also finding clips of the other twins that appear in the film,” and going deeper into that, just finding things I hadn’t seen before as well.
G: How long did the documentary take, and what was the most pivotal part of making the documentary where you were like, “This is it? This is where it’s supposed to be.”
ZM: We were working on it actively in production, but I think we did all the interviews that we shot remotely during the pandemic more or less. Those were all done at different points, but we got properly into the post-production process, which is where archival films really come to life. It was about three months, and the most fruitful point of it was working with the editor, Dan Barbara, who’s an archival mastermind of editing. He and I would really play with the footage and back and forth about how we wanted the images to look.
Because they’re all in archival, it’s the whole screen. We wanted to kind of play with how you’re seeing images in unison and having two side-by-side, but also how we were layering images. Dan had that really great idea to put all the clips from their ads with it with real corporeal girls and material girls. That was Dan painstakingly scanning in the Mary-Kate and Ashley magazines that I have and editing that to make it animated that way. I think when we landed on that archival style is when we were really like, “Okay. We’re onto something good.”
G: Did you come across any obstacles or roadblocks while working remotely and through the pandemic like that?
ZM: I mean the shooting remotely is never ideal. The older twins in the film, the Buttercamps, who are incredible… I wasn’t there in person, and I so would have loved to have met them. I was on Zoom, and my crew was in California with them filming. I think just the number one priority was with casting during a pandemic as well, you just want to make sure everyone feels safe.
G: So the big question, are you a Mary-Kate or Ashley?
ZM: I want to be Mary-Kate so much. Mary-Kate is the one I want to say, but I think most of my friends would probably describe me as an Ashley. It’s always like a twofold question, where I feel like I could get a Mary-Kate, but really I’m an Ashley. Ashley is meant to be the more processor of a person, walking things from point A to point B. Mary-Kate is the seen as more ethereal, creative, let’s see how things end up, more driven, I guess where Ashley’s more about the nuts and bolts. I think in being a filmmaker, the nuts and bolts kind of thing is what allows you to be creative. In a fun way, it’s kind of like I think that’s what makes them work so well together.
G: What’s your favorite Olsen trend, fashion trend?
ZM: Oh, that’s a good question. I really love sunglasses. It leads back into the thing I think is most captivating about them because they are the only celebrities really that exist in that era who are so mysterious. I love that there is mystery about them and that they hold that space.
G: Did you uncover any new information that you may have not known before the documentary?
ZM: I think the main one, and this is not about the Olsens specifically, is just how the population of twins is growing more rapidly than ever before because of IVF and people having kids later in life. The idea, thinking about how rare twins were and how cool it was to see them… In 20 years’ time, that feeling may not be the same because every one of us will know more twins.
G: Have Mary-Kate and Ashley seen the documentary?
ZM: I would imagine they’ve probably seen it by now. They weren’t involved in the making of the film. I mean I would obviously love to know what they think because, ultimately, I wanted it to be a respectful film. I wanted it to be a film that they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable having out there, even though they weren’t involved in it.
G: What do you hope that they would think of it? What would be the amazing response that you would love to hear from them?
ZM: I thought about this a lot, and I think in a way, the best response is almost silent one because, as you say, the mystery is part of why I love them, so that was great. I mean I’m sure to meet them would be absolutely extraordinary. In my fantasy, I would open my apartment door, and there’d just be a box from The Row with a note saying “We approved.” That, I would love.
G: Isn’t that all of our fantasies? What do you think about the culture obsession with Y2K fashion, and why do you feel like it’s become such a thing again?
ZM: I think a lot of it is that after these very bleak two years we’ve had of largely just wearing sweats at home, Y2K fashion is so playful, and I think it takes people back to this moment where prior to the internet, trends really felt far more personal at that time. I love how younger people are incorporating it in different ways. I know recently, there was that trend of people using iPod Minis as an accessory like that. I was like, “Yes. Technology is so wasteful in the way that it evolves. Why not rework those things back.