It's been a long and winding 12-year journey, but the new drama Saving Zoë — based on Alyson Noël's 2007 novel and starring sisters Vanessa Marano and Laura Marano — is finally in theaters. The siblings also co-produced the movie along with their mother Ellen — a first time for all of them. Added to the common and inevitable production roadblocks encountered along the way, Saving Zoë was also a challenge to get made because of its heavy subject matter: sex trafficking.
"The feedback started to be 'Oh, we're interested, but we're a little scared of the topic,'" Vanessa Marano says of pitching the film to studios, speaking over the phone ahead of the movie's release.
But the difficulty of the topic didn't discourage the Maranos from pushing through and finding willing collaborators. Vanessa continues, "If this is a topic people are afraid to talk about, then that's even more reason the story needs to be told."
Laura plays Echo, who enters high school a year after her older sister Zoë's (Vanessa) murder. Echo is still trying to comprehend the mysterious, violent events that led to her sister's death, and upon further investigation finds out that Zoë was a victim of sexual exploitation.
The scenario is hardly fantastical. According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is the "the second largest criminal industry in the world today, and it is the fastest growing." The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that trafficking for sexual exploitation continues to be the most detected from of trafficking, and that 96% of trafficking victims are women or girls. The International Labor Office estimates that the annual profits from forced sexual exploitation are at $99 billion worldwide.
Still, Laura admits that she and Vanessa were no experts on the topic of sex trafficking, and that the topic wasn't even what initially drew their attention to the 2007 novel. "What attracted us to the book was the dark world Alyson Noël portrayed, but it was also the sister aspect. Being sisters, we related to that," the younger Marano shares. "But the more we worked on the project, especially as we were gearing up for the movie, during production, and even post-production, teaming up with an organization called Equality Now we've become so aware, so educated about this issue."
Equality Now is an organization dedicated to protecting women and girls from violence and discrimination, sexual exploitation, harmful cultural practices, and systemic inequalities that violate women and girls' human rights. Consulting with the Maranos, the organization educated the sisters about the realities of sex trafficking and made sure that the film was accurate to the experiences of the survivors they support.
"We want to start a conversation. We want people to be aware. We want people to know about this issue way more than they know about it right now," Laura continues.
In addition to grappling with such a serious, sensitive subject, the sisters also had to wrestle with their duties as producers. "I think what was hard was that it was challenging as an actor, but we also had to doubly produce — which, again, was our first time making that happen," says Laura.
"We were just barely getting four hours of sleep every night. And to top it off, the fact that it was extremely emotional was quite taxing," says Vanessa, then laughs, "I would say the lack of sleep probably helped us get that emotional."
The sleepless nights proved to be worth it in the end. In partnership Equality Now, Saving Zoë was shown to survivors of violence and exploitation in a special screening. "They responded so well, really loved it, and were so great and so warm and welcoming, and so appreciative of the fact that we made this film. That felt amazing," says Vanessa. "So I think the reward is in the final product, and the privilege of sharing it with people."
After breathing life into Saving Zoë, Vanessa and Laura say that they want to take on more projects with their mom. "I feel like there are so many directions we can go into. We definitely wouldn't be against doing comedies," says Laura. "Producing a comedy would kind of be fun and light," Vanessa adds. The elder Marano sister continues, "I think Laura and I, and our mom, really just want to be able to tell stories that are important to us and that we're passionate about, and that says something bigger than something that doesn't say anything at all."
The two hint that new projects are already in the works. They've already tackled a film with the potential to have a substantial impact on a global crisis, so audiences can expect more thought-provoking entertainment to come from this family.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.