Spousal abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted murder all make appearances in the opening scenes of The Haven, but creator/writer Mia McCullough describes the webseries about life in a domestic violence shelter as a “dramedy.”
“Shelters are a lot happier than people imagine,” she says. “But it’s hard to tell the story of someone going to a shelter in a funny way.”
The Haven follows the paths of three women drawn to one such facility on Chicago’s northwest side. The first episode focuses on Briana (Aneisa Hicks), who calls the shelter after her husband tries to strangle her in the middle of the night.
The context of the scene generates a significant degree of sympathy for her husband, but the worker on the other end of the line is not so easily convinced.
McCullough started working as a crisis line worker in a domestic violence shelter in 1999. She found it to be a “meaningful” way to pay bills while transforming her education from Northwestern’s creative writing program into a bona fide profession.
“I’ve been doing it on and off ever since,” she says.
She says that women who come to shelters generally spend the first few weeks “giving up on the dream of what you thought your life would be,” and then work towards a new place in life. “It’s amazing to watch people lineup housing and make friends with other women,” she adds.
After successfully producing plays in theaters across the country, including Chicago’s Steppenwolf, McCullough turned her attention to film. Part of her motivation to expand was the accessibility that technology has brought to the genre.
“I started teaching at Northwestern in 2005, and my students kind of reenergized me back into screenwriting,” she explains. “Things are so much easier to do now that it’s all digital and less expensive.”
The opening scenes of The Haven draw on her experience screening applicants to the shelter.
“Sometimes the job is about making sure the person on the other side of the phone is not going to disrupt the house if they come in,” she explains.
When Briana calls the shelter, her husband is in the room. When the worker at the shelter learns this, she asks, “Is that your abuser?” Briana objects to the term, and their ensuing conversation shifts the mood towards comedy without slighting the circumstances.
McCullough was also inspired by the cultural evolution of modern television.
“Nobody was doing shows about women, certainly women of color,” she explains. “Then Orange Is The New Black came out and they proved that people would watch a cast filled with women of color.”
With help from Elizabeth Laidlaw, the show’s producer and a longtime theater collaborator, McCullough hired a crew reflects the diversity of the cast.
“We had four Asian women on set the other day,” she recalls. “They were like, ‘this never happens!’”
McCullough and Laidlaw co-directed the first episode. Veteran lensmaster and Women of the Now founder Layne Marie Williams directs the rest.
By the end of The Haven’s initial launch, Briana and her husband emerge as likable and interesting characters, and the plot hints that more are on the way.
“It’s not a lot of people sitting around whining,” McCullough explains. “It’s about people living with people from other parts of the city.”
Producer / Writer Mia McCullough
Producer / Actor Elizabeth Laidlaw
Associate Producer Grace Hahn
Line Producer Megan St. John
Production Consultant Susan Schreiner
PA Anna Kovalenko
PA Jasmine Hill
PA Bethany Arrinton
Director Layne Marie
1st AD Laura Day
Director of Photography Andrea Kinnerk
1st AC Nicole Harmon
Gaffer Hex Yang
Grip Patrick Hyatt
Production Designer K Mraz
Set Dresser Christina Garia
Set Dresser Kelly Cox
Set Dresser Kyra Celeste
Costume Designer Moriah Turner
Key HMU Libby Knapp
HMU Vicki Valente
Sound Mixer Katie Campos
Christine Bunuan ROSA
Cat Dean ALICE
Kat Blackburn WILLA
Penelope Walker MYRA
Sage Miskel TASHA
Alex Dauphin CRYSTAL
Sydney Charles FAE
Denise Hoeflich CONNIE
Harmony Zhang SYLVIE
Amy Carle RACHAEL
Soli Santos LUPE
Aneisa Hicks BRIANA
Jaylen Bryant JAIK