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Deep Focus

Ron Carlson

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Take one part hair metal, one part giant ant, and mix in a music festival that nobody is clamoring to attend (NOchella) and you have yourself the new comedy/horror hybrid “Dead Ant,” which is set to hold its World Premiere tonight as part of Screamfest at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California.

We recently sat down with the film’s writer/director Ron Carlson to discuss the year-long journey of bringing the monstrous insects to the big screen, why you should go see “Star Wars” if you want the bugs to look more realistic, and how “Dead Ant” is less about bringing a B-movie to life and more about a band having to navigate the rules of that particular world.

TrunkSpace: What has the “Dead Ant” journey been like for you in terms of seeing your vision become a reality? Has it been a long journey?
Carlson: It has. The script I wrote relatively quick. I really knocked out the first draft of this in five weeks. 
My first draft was just a band, a little more nondescript band, and then I decided I know and I understand hair metal, and those are great guys to be underdogs. Their music is pretty “out” today. They’re playing some state fairs, and they’re not getting invited to Coachella. They’re not in the Sundance Film Festival. So these guys were perfect for that – meaning the characters.

The laborious journey for me was I had the CG done – 700 CG shots in the movie, roughly – in Russia. That took a year, and during that year, you’re lost in the 700 shots. That was really painful, to be truthful.

TrunkSpace: How do you manage that when you’re working with a team who is physically so far removed from where you are?
Carlson: It’s through Skype and it’s me making videos of myself, pretending to be the ant, and what I want it to do and sending a storyboard shot and getting it back. It was really complicated, but in our budget range, it was the best work that I had seen. I don’t think the effects looked Syfy channel, but they’re not Pixar. They’re not Harry Potter. I made the movie for 99 million dollars less than a Harry Potter. I don’t have access to all that. Ultimately, if you’re going to see this movie because you want the best special effects, go fucking see “Star Wars.” Go see something else. I’m not giving you that. If you want to say, “Oh, I just want to go and have a good time,” that’s what I’m delivering. I feel like I can sufficiently do that.

TrunkSpace: And therein lies the other great connection to the hair metal genre, which was an era where everyone wanted to (and was) just having fun. It is a genre of music known for having a good time.
Carlson: That’s it. That’s the thing. There’s not a person out there that can’t turn on Hair Nation on Sirius Radio and sing along with a couple of the songs. Everybody knows a few. Two beers in a bar, a hair metal song comes on, and you’re alright. “I’m going to sing out with the crowd right now.” And that was my goal with this movie. I really wanted to make a good comedy that was within the rules of a B-horror movie.

TrunkSpace: Casting Jake Busey as Merrick was a great move because he seems all-in and really built for the role.
Carlson: Yes, Jake was built for this role, but no one would see Jake as this, you know what I mean? You wouldn’t initially say, “Okay yeah, Jake Busey is this guy!” I loved Jake.

I had a job at one point where I interviewed different bands. I interviewed a couple of these hair metal bands, and it’s funny because they all kind of become famous and big bands when they’re 18 and in high school. Then they move on and they start to burn out or whatever. But it’s funny, once you become that famous guy, at that age, and especially it seemed like with the guys that I interviewed, they kind of stay that same age. It’s still like high school for them where it’s like, “Oh yeah, you just gotta get down! It’s about playing the song and getting beers and hooking up with these chicks!”

I remember, there was this very famous band that I was in awe of and going to get to interview and then I interviewed them and I was like, “They’re these high school dudes! Holy shit!” It was that particular interview that really stuck with me, and I utilized a piece of the truth from that, that I wanted to sprinkle into this, to keep these guys real. That was the biggest thing, really keeping these guys truthful so you buy into them because then you’ve just got this cartoon movie and you have no heart. I feel like the movie has heart.

TrunkSpace: More often than not, the hair metal genre, when handled in media, is approached like a caricature.
Carlson: Yes, it is done as a caricature, and you’re not getting to see the real side. I kind of wanted to stick this band in within the rules of a B-horror movie. What I told Tom (Arnold) when I’d meet with him, I’d say, “Look, man, this is going to go great, or I’m really going to drive this thing into the ground on every level.” He looked at me and he goes, “I like that. That is an honest answer.” We hit it off. It was a good working relationship – and with all the guys. I’ve become good friends with everybody in this movie. It’s really one that I love the cast and they love the movie. They don’t just go, “Eh.” They like it. Even Jake, he’s like, “I’ve done a hundred movies and this one’s in my top three.” And truthfully, I actually think he likes himself in this role so much. I’ve become friends with him, and he wears his fucking Sonic Grave T-shirt all the time. Everybody’s got a Sonic Grave T-shirt, but I haven’t seen anybody wear it as much as he did. He loves it.

TrunkSpace: Tonally it felt like the film had the same vibe as some of the great “Tales from the Crypt” episodes of the 80s and early 90s, and in doing research, we discovered that you were actually IN an episode of that show way back when.
Carlson: It’s so funny, yeah, I did. I did an episode with Kimberly Williams from “Father of the Bride,” and I was so taken by her, like, “Oh my God!” I think it was one of the first things I ever did.

It (“Dead Ant”) didn’t really come from that specifically. I’m friends with a good circle of horror friends, and I would say I’m more of a comedic director within that group. But I love horror. I love the whole vibe. There’s a piece of me that really wants to kind of sink my teeth into a real, in-depth horror film – straight horror, but not any time soon. I think I’ve got a sequel for “Dead Ant” and I’d really like to do that one.

TrunkSpace: Life is a little bit of everything. Even a single day is never just one genre of living. As an audiences, experiencing a genre mashup always makes sense. Did you worry about combining comedy and horror on this particular film?
Carlson: I wondered how it would resonate with the horror audience, because again, it follows the rule of a horror movie, but it’s not like at the end we’re starting to pick people off and then we’ve got our survivor and they live. The third act does something a little different than the normal horror movie. I wonder how people would react to that. Ultimately I feel like it’s kind of a crossover movie.

I hope it appeals a lot to the horror audience and they love and respect it for what it is, but I also think it’s really hard to make a broad comedy. Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, whoever… whatever their formula is, their main character and the journey that they go through, it’s hard to get laughs. Especially in this day and age, in a film, and to keep them going, because we have YouTube and we have all these things. So that’s why in some of these broad comedies that studios do, shit gets really cartooned. They try to go too big, and they lose the truth.

If you’re in the Hollywood area, you can purchase tickets for tonight’s World Premiere of “Dead Ant” here.

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Deep Focus

Justin Sayre

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Photo By: Matthew Dean Stewart

In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Justin Sayre, creator and star of the new stage show, “I’m Gorgeous Inside,” which premieres tonight at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York. We recently sat down with Sayre to discuss how lonely real estate served as the catalyst for the show, how much he likes to put out fires on stage, and why he’s ready to tell any bad girl’s story.

TrunkSpace: Your show “The Meeting” ran for eight seasons. With bands and songwriters, you hear a lot of them talk about how they keep songs “fresh” while they’re touring with the same material for extend periods of time. How does that work for you on a show?
Sayre: It was a different show every month, so it was always new material. It was always a different icon, and it was always different guests. There was always a lot of room for experimentation, and a lot of, “How do we want to do this this month? Here are our parameters, and how do we play within that?”

Getting to meet these great downtown artists, and people from Broadway, and other people making interesting work in New York, inspired me certainly to push myself further, and to push the show in different directions. Being a show that was inherently political, there was always new fodder to make it work. But it always came back to this idea about community, and bringing people together, and really creating space for a community to form. Not just around the show, but in the world.

That became just an overwhelming part of the show. I built a different kind of repartee with an audience, then I would have otherwise. It didn’t ever feel stale, it just felt like we’ve done this now. It was time to start a new adventure. I also really wanted to step out on my own a little bit, and create something that wasn’t so driven by politics. Even though I think a lot of my work is political, I wanted to make something that was more… just about my ideas and things like that, rather than constantly in response to what was happening.

TrunkSpace: So what was the origin story of “I’m Gorgeous Inside?” Where did it all begin?
Sayre: I worked on “2 Broke Girls” in LA. When I would drive to work, there was this real estate sign on a house that said, “I’m gorgeous inside,” and I thought, you’ve got to be at a pretty low point when you have to tell people, “No, wait a minute. I may look like hell outside, but inside, oh my God, I got all my original floors. I got everything!” (Laughter) I always thought it was a really funny title, so when we came up with the show, I was like, “I want to do that as the show, ‘I’m Gorgeous Inside’.”

When I was talking about things that I was really interested in, it was the tough girl archetype, this bad girl archetype that so many gay men are interested in, and think about, and emulate in their ways. But really, getting past that and talking about what that meant to them in a concrete way, rather than just an abstraction or some kind of hyperbole that makes fun of those women. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what was the core, igniting spark that made you look at Rizzo in “Grease” or some Bette Davis movie, and you’re like, “I gotta go with her!” I think it’s because they’re characters who are generally not given enough, but demand more. They are shortchanged, but they don’t take it. I think for a lot of queer people, that means something. Seeing somebody who is told by the world “no” and continues to demand a “yes” is really empowering. Once that kind of percolated in my head, the idea of “I’m Gorgeous Inside” kind of happened. Then it really just kind of flew from there.

TrunkSpace: And what’s great about the title is that it really does have multiple meanings. It’s that funny origin story, but also, it’s about self-acceptance.
Sayre: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. It sounds very highfalutin, and it sounds like it’s gonna be some therapy session, but it’s really just a bunch of jokes. It’s gonna be fine. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: What emotions are you going through as you build up towards opening night?
Sayre: I think I’ve been told I have a lot of unnecessary fear. I think that’s fair to say, because I know myself well enough at this point that once I get out there, I’m going to be fine. I’m going to know how to put out the fires, even if I start them. (Laughter) I think right now it’s just like, “Oh wow, we’re really going to do this thing. We’re going to take it to this place. My work is going to go now in yet another direction.”

There’s trepidation about it, but there’s also an excitement, because one of the things that I’ve learned, after having done “The Meeting” for so long, is that I love kind of creating problems on stage, and solving them – this mentality of you know you can do it. You know you can be with an audience, and you can take them places. I feel very lucky that such a large group of people trust me, and have continued to do that. Once I concentrate on that, the other stuff really goes away.

TrunkSpace: And in a way, you kind of open the door for putting out fires because there’s audience interaction, right?
Sayre: Oh, always. Always, and one thing that were doing in this show, which I’m so excited about, is when I used to drink, I never had any money. I would have little contests with my friends, and see if they would buy me a drink. One of the contests was, they would give me a girl’s name, I would tell their whole life story in 10 minutes. It would have a beginning, middle, and end. It would be really specific, and if I could do it, and do it well, they would buy me a drink. In this show, I’m having Jenn Harris, who is a wonderful actress, come dressed as a different bad girl of her choosing each night, without me having seen her. She comes out on stage, and I, in front of an audience, will tell her life story for 10 minutes. We’re gonna play this game. We’re gonna see how it works. Jenn is super excited, because she gets to be crazy, and do whatever she wants. I’m really excited because not only is it working with Jenn, but it’s kind of keeping that spirit alive of, “All right, go! Make up a story! Do it!”

TrunkSpace: You’ve written for television. You’ve written for stage. You’re a published author. What would you like to tackle with the written word next?
Sayre: I just finished a new play, so I’d really like that to have a premiere in New York. I’m very excited about that. I’ve written a film over the summer. We’re shopping that around this fall. I’m working on two pilots right now. There’s lots of work, but I think really in the future, it’s figuring out how to integrate it all together in some weird amalgam. So it is film, and it is television, but I came up in the theater, and I came up in the downtown scene, so it’s making art that still reflects that worldview. I don’t want to give that up, because I think now more so than ever it’s necessary. I came up with people who told me, “Don’t ever worry about being mainstream. Just make the shit you want to make.” Now everyone is pushing to say, “How do we go mainstream? How do we go viral? How do we get everybody involved?” What ends up happening is, a lot of things get homogenized because of that. I think there has gotta be a place for the outliers. There is still gotta be a place for the renegades.

For more information on “I’m Gorgeous Inside” or to purchase tickets, click here.

Featured image by: Matthew Dean Stewart

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Deep Focus

James Roland

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In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

In the second part of our interview with James Roland, creator, writer, and producer of the SyFy series “Blood Drive,” we’re discussing budgets, crews, and season twos!

(Read the first part of our James Roland interview here.)

TrunkSpace: Another one of the great things about “Blood Drive” is the direction. A great example of this is when Fat Elvis is being butchered in the episode “Welcome to Pixie Swallow.”
Roland: Yeah. That was the brain child of writer, Marc Halsey. He wrote that episode and came up with that. That was very specifically scripted and then David Straiton, our executive producer who directed some of the episodes, just nailed it. That was the goal. We didn’t want to just shoot a standard show that happened to have grosser moments in it and then slap a fake 15mm filter over the top. Because if you notice, we don’t do that. The trailer and the promos did that, but we were more interested in being true to the spirit than just the aesthetics.

What we challenged our directors to do, what David supervised all of the directors and challenged all the other directors to do, was to dig into the specific genres for each episode. Rather than just choosing color, really get into having a frame, why they were edited that way, and why they were effective. I think a lot of shows say, “Hey, we gave our directors creative freedom.” We give our directors A LOT of fucking freedom. That whole episode 6 where Christopher goes into the secret room?

TrunkSpace: Where he meets Julian in the hallway?
Roland: Yeah. And the room is spinning. Not scripted. That was the director and the production designer going, “This is a cool room. How can we make this even more interesting? How do we get it to the next level?” Somebody came up with idea of, “What if there’s throw-up on the floor, the cement, and all over because it makes it all look cooler?”

Then we had an amazing camera operator and he had this rig where you could rotate the camera completely around. We didn’t have enough money to get a gimbal, and for people who don’t know what that is, it’s where the whole room rotates upside down. It’s how they did the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” stuff where she’s on the ceiling. We didn’t have that, so that was our cheap, Grindhousey way of doing it and it turned into a really cool, sci-fi driven moment.

It was difficult to trust because with a basic, normal scene I can walk on set and say, “I can see what you’re doing. I see how that will come together. Make sure you get the close-up. Make sure you run that character moment.” But for a scene like that it’s like, “Is this going to make any fucking sense?” (Laughter) We took that risk. Every time we had that question, we took that risk and I felt like it paid off and made the show so much more interesting than it would have been, which is saying something given the scripts are so crazy.

TrunkSpace: It’s interesting hearing you mention the budgetary issues because it doesn’t look like a show that was hampered by budgetary constraints.
Roland: We’re in the SyFy channel low-budget model. The show runner is John Hlavin is a mad genius. He also runs “Shooter” for USA. We were going in, before we had officially sold the series, and he cracked a joke. He said, “When we’re up there in the office…” we call it the dark tower on the Universal lot. It’s this big, giant black tower that is very ominous. Anyway, he was like, “When we’re up in that dark tower, what do you do if we’ve got to make this show below our number? Who’s gonna be the first one to jump out the window?”

So we sit down and they hand us a sheet of paper and we see the number that they’re pitching for the budget and it’s barely above the joke number. I mean, barely. I’m the least experienced in the room. I was there with John Hlavin who is a pro. He wrote for “The Shield” and he’s got a long career. And David Straiton who’s this long term producer/director on shows like “Hemlock Grove” and all the Marvel shows. Experienced guys. They just go pale. I’m like, “Uh oh, this is bad.” (Laughter)

Normally shows will have a larger budget pilot and then the rest of the episodes are less, but this is per episode. The pilot was no more expensive than any other episode. The number that I’m quoting is about half of “The Magicians.” This is a lower budget number. What do you do? Do you say, “No, no thank you. I don’t want to make 13 episodes of my own show.” You just say yes and then you figure out how the hell you’re gonna do it.

We’re building this bigger world that we have in our head in a way that we can’t afford. Obviously on a script level, we reduce the amount of racing scenes to every other episode in these concentrated, little moments so that over the course of four to six episodes, people feel like they’re getting a lot of racing. But if you actually go back and look at the show, you don’t get racing every episode. We just couldn’t afford it. You have to get pit stops, which is fine as long as it has that adrenaline feel and we keep the energy up in the pacing of the plotting. It’s still going to feel like we have the momentum so that’s how we get away with that.

And then it’s, “Okay, we cannot afford all of these actors every episode.” If you listen to Slink, he talks about how the race goes on different paths every day, so that explains why you can’t have The Gentleman and The Scholar in every episode. They go out and they come back in and out of the story, so you can go a couple of episodes without seeing them and then seeing them again. It’s like revisiting old friends. Otherwise the only other answer was to cut out Domi and Cliff and just have The Gentleman and The Scholar or something like that. Even though you’re gonna get more of The Gentleman and The Scholar, you’re also gonna shrink the scope of your world.

I think it’s weirdly both a blessing and a curse because from the very first daily of the show, I don’t think the network had any idea how good it was going to look. We were all kind of really blown away, but the curse of that is that they forget that it’s a low budget show.

TrunkSpace: (Laughter) And when you get a second season, you get the same budgets!
Roland: Exactly!

I’m glad that you saw that that. I have worked with a lot of crews. My first career was as an assistant director. I did that for seven years. I worked with damn good crews and non-union crews. As an executive assistant, I worked with some of the best television crews. The South African team rivaled all of them. We would walk onto the sets and my jaw would drop at how intricate the set was.

When I saw what the costume department was doing with Slink and Aki… all of those costumes are handmade, handcrafted, and fitted. The rule was that they never dress the same way twice. Slink never dresses the same way twice, within reason. I think after six or seven episodes, you might see a recycle here or there, but it needs to feel different every time and they pulled that off. If you watch, his top hat is always changing. Those are all made by hand.

TrunkSpace: You hear this a lot in the horror/indie worlds, but sometimes when you’re forced to rethink your budgets and think outside-the-box, that’s when the magic happens.
Roland: Yeah, it’s true. Please don’t let the people with the paycheck hear that, but it’s true. (Laughter)

We talked a lot about that. I love the “Grindhouse” double feature. I love it, but their budget was 40 million dollars. That means that one of those movies, either “Planet Terror” or “Death Proof,” has the budget of our entire season. It kind of forced us to be little bit more grindhouse, for real. There are times when it shows, but those are the moments where we distract you with something shiny, so you’re not looking at the part that didn’t work. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: How have you guys avoided more conservative groups protesting the show, because it seems like “Blood Drive” would be right up their alley as far as saving us from moral brainwashing?
Roland: Yeah, you know, there’s one, but I expected more. There was one website that said advertisers need to pull their ads from the show. I was like, “Yeah, let’s get it started.” I was excited for it.

TrunkSpace: Usually those kinds of protests just bring in more viewers.
Roland: It always helps it. Maybe if we’d gotten more of that, it would’ve been even better for us. My gut tells me it’s because most people get it because we have a sense of humor about it. We don’t consider ourselves a spoof. We never wanted to do spoof. We technically get meta because of the show within a show aspect with Slink. All of it, even with the meta, we always make sure that what Slink says could be true for both the show you’re watching and the show he’s creating within the show.

TrunkSpace: Any word on a season 2 yet?
Roland: We haven’t heard yet. We’re waiting on pins and needles. We’ll see. We’re waiting for the official word, but I hope so. I’m dying, man. We have game plans for season 2 that kind of ups the anti to a new level. It would be amazing to get to do it.

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Deep Focus

James Roland

JamesRoland_DeepFocus_part1

In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with James Roland, creator, writer, and producer of the SyFy series “Blood Drive.” We recently sat down with Roland to discuss the psychology of the series, how he was able to shoot the show as a hard R, and why Arthur Bailey is a Frank Capra character stuck in a Roger Corman world.

TrunkSpace: The characters you have created for “Blood Drive” really help build out the world. Each one is a layer to a very tasty cake.
Roland: We got lucky with that, man. It wasn’t lucky, I should say. We had casting directors working their asses off. We had a hell of a cast. It was impressive.

TrunkSpace: And that cast is so diverse in terms of backgrounds.
Roland: Yeah. Marama is from Malta. I have never met another human being from Malta.

TrunkSpace: She has a very unique accent.
Roland: It’s amazing. We met Marama over tape because we were already in South Africa prepping by the time she was cast. So we were looking at these video submissions online and her video submission popped up with, “Hi, I’m Marama Corlett, and I’m over 18 years old.” We were like, “Whoa! What is that about?” We were a little weirded out. (Laughter) She gave a great audition and she ended up getting the part. I learned through this experience that actors are supposed to give their measurements, like their height, their weight, and all that comes with it. She shows up on set and she doesn’t even come to my shoulder. She’s so tiny and she has kind of a baby face, so she looks like she’s 10 years old. I’m like, “Oh, that’s why! We just thought you were kooky!” (Laughter) Of course, she’s all paranoid because she’s like, “I’m so much shorter than Thomas.” And I was like, “This is the one show where that doesn’t matter, and actually helps.”

TrunkSpace: There’s that one scene where she’s kneeling down near his foot and it’s as big as her head.
Roland: Yes! I know. It allowed for these amazing shot dynamics and forced directors into more interesting framing, actually. The code is that you’re supposed to get them within a reasonable distance of height of each other so that you can do over-the-shoulders very easily and move quickly. We just didn’t have that. It was pretty cool.

I can’t remember what episode it is where he picks her up, but it was amazing to watch on set because it was like she might as well not have been there. He’s so ripped. It was like, TINK… like putting a little teacup on the counter.

TrunkSpace: The size difference really works because she is the one in control, which gives it this crazy, “Blood Drive” dynamic.
Roland: Yeah, it actually is pretty cool. It brought a lot of psychology, I think, to the forefront of that dynamic because you start to go, “Why isn’t he…? Why can’t he…?” I’m sure she’s got all these super powers and stuff like that, but you start to really go, “Oh, this guy wants this on a certain level.”

I had a scene written that we never got to shoot that really hit that kind of on the head. We ran out of time, but it would have been amazing because it really was something that we saw on the page. We talked a lot about the psychology, about why he lets these things happen, and, of course, at a certain point he can’t get out. It’s because he’s physically trapped.

They brought it out in their performance, in their dynamic, and using their body types as part of that too. It was really amazing. It’s been cool to see people dig into that storyline like I kind of knew they would. At first they’re like, “What the hell is this about?” And then you start to see it unfold over time. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned stuff that was on the page that didn’t make it in. That being said, how the hell did you get the stuff in that was on the page?!?!
Roland: (Laughter) SyFy held true to their word. They said, “We want you to push it.” But I don’t think when they said that they knew what they were getting into. (Laughter) Obviously stuff is censored with the censor bars and stuff, but we went into it saying, “I don’t want to shoot the PG-13 version and we don’t have time to because that doubles your amount of shooting time on certain things and it’s confusing, it’s a pain in the ass, and we don’t have time to edit two different versions.” Time is money and we were so low-budget and so fast-paced there was just no way.

So it was like, “We’re going to shoot the hard R version,” and even though technically we put the black bars on ourselves, because that was the cheaper option than farming it out to some company that is on the network side, we would just literally say, “You tell us what we absolutely have to have black bars over.” We’d get into a little debate with them, back and forth versions, and stuff like that, because that way it wasn’t self-censorship, right? It was the network telling us. I feel like if we self-censor, if we do a PG-13 cut, I think the fans and the audience just smell bullshit. I know I would. I’d be like, “Well, you’re saying this is Grindhouse…”

TrunkSpace: There’s also the shock value of it that makes viewers want to come back in order to see what you will attempt next.
Roland: Yeah, exactly. We treated the shock value and the craziness as… in the writers’ room we always called it a safety net, but not a crutch. And what we meant by that is that if we fuck up and don’t do our jobs to make the scenes interesting, to make the characters interesting, or we just fuck up and it just doesn’t quite meet expectations, we’ve got that craziness there as something that is interesting. But never, never did we just write a scene just to be crazy.

TrunkSpace: And we touched on this earlier, but the characters have so many layers. They’re not two-dimensional, which is another pleasant surprise for viewers who came in expecting one thing and got something else.
Roland: That was by design because when I pitched it, I pitched it on a whim as a joke. It was meant to be a silly, fake Grindhouse trailer back in 2011. I almost did it for a contest, but I couldn’t figure out how to do the blood engines, so I did something else instead, which obviously did not win. But this idea of the “Blood Drive” concept, cars that run on blood and a cross country race, all of my friends kept asking me about it. I could tell it sparked interest in people. And then when I pitched it, my manager said, “Yeah, write that, write that!” He got really excited. And then it was like, “Okay, but how do you turn it into a story?” Because it’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit. It doesn’t have legs. It doesn’t have, terrible pun intended, an engine that really keeps it going in a television format. And then I hit upon the idea of Arthur Bailey.

We named him Bailey because of George Bailey… because I wanted it to be like what happens when a Frank Capra character gets thrown into a Roger Corman movie. And then that cracked open the world, because then that set the bar. He’s a good guy, so what happens when you’re in a bad race? What does it do to you? What does it reveal about you, because everybody has dark secrets. We’re about to go on a three or four episode arc that really digs into Arthur and gets into a lot of that.

Keep in mind, Grindhouse isn’t actually a genre. If you’re going to be specific, Grindhouse is just a theater that played exploitation movies. When the movie “Grindhouse” came out, the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature, it kind of shifted into a genre, or at least an aesthetic. So within that there are some great frickin’ movies! “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gets thrown into that category. It’s a masterpiece. The Blood Trilogy by Herschell Gordon Lewis is not a masterpiece. (Laughter) It couldn’t be any further from it, although I love those movies for what they are. Roger Corman is considered a shock-meister and yet his pro movies are really heartfelt. “The Intruder” is just a bold, at the time, counter cultural kind of soapbox movie. In a good way! It deals with race relations, but he doesn’t get remembered for that. He gets remembered for “Death Race 2000,” which as cheesy as it is, it’s a brilliant social commentary. So yeah, that was always the goal. Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it can’t have dramatic value or even meaning. I don’t think that we’re a profound show. Of course not. But every episode we did say, “What is the episode about?” If we are going to be so brash and ridiculous and kind of have this ability to say things when people are not even going to realize we are saying them because they are too busy laughing or puking or whatever it is they’re doing, then let’s do it. Let’s say something.

The second part of our James Roland can be read here.

 

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Deep Focus

Kulap Vilaysack

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In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Kulap Vilaysack, creator and showrunner for Seeso’s “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$” starring Paul F. Tompkins and Mandell Maughan. We recently sat down with Vilaysack to discuss her upcoming documentary “Origin Story,” how she became a showrunner, and what it’s like working in an environment that nurtures improvisation.

TrunkSpace: We know that networks and execs love working with showrunners that they trust and have an established track record so we’re curious how you broke into the position?
Vilaysack: I think Seeso is the unusual place, because they’re very much creators first. You look at their lineup, a lot of the people come from podcasts. So their main goal is to really make sure that they have a point of view. I think with that said, their knowledge of me, plus me having the strong backup of Mr. Scott Aukerman of “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Grant from “Reno 911!” and many other things, I think they had full confidence in me.

TrunkSpace: Was being a showrunner always in your sights or did it just happen as part of a natural career progression?
Vilaysack: It happened because, I know I talk about this a lot so forgive me, but it really came from Tom going, “Well, you’ll showrun it, right?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right, I will.”

TrunkSpace: Did you feel confident right out of the gates in the position?
Vilaysack: It takes doing. It takes figuring it out. It takes listening. It takes putting together a great team whom I trust and who never let me down. It takes having great mentors and examples. Yeah, like with anything you just learn from doing.

TrunkSpace: You worked on plenty of others shows throughout the years in different capacities. Did you absorb the position through watching other showrunners?
Vilaysack: I don’t know if I learned from other showrunners but certainly I’ve learned from just being on set, seeing how sets work and then watching and going, “Okay, I think that’s great, I’d like to use that for my own project.” Or, “That’s not so great, maybe I’ll try a different way. I think there might be a better way of doing things.”

TrunkSpace: A large portion of “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$” utilizes improv. Does that change the role of a showrunner at all?
Vilaysack: I don’t know, I don’t have any other experience. For me, the show is semi-improvised so we have really strong and clear outlines that have a premise and we know who everybody is to one another and what everybody wants from one another. Then we have the beats of the scene and we have where we’re going to heighten each beat. “Okay, here are examples of dialogue that you can use or not use, but you know what I’m looking for.” And then we have an ending plan. That ending can change and oftentimes does, but there’s no feeling like you’re not supported.

But when you ask me questions in reference to what it’s like to run other shows, I don’t really have any context to share with you.

TrunkSpace: Has a moment of improv within the show ever inspired any of the broad strokes that you guys created beforehand to change? Have any gems come out of stuff where you went, “Okay, let’s rethink what we’re doing longterm?”
Vilaysack: I don’t think so. I’m trying to think here.

We have amazing, genius improvisors. The show is, in many ways, produced like a reality TV show and so we have set stories. In the beginning of the season we sit down and I sit down with all of our cast members and talk to them about what their season long arc is as individuals and then what the arc is for the show. From there we just do a bunch of different scenes and not every scene ends up in the show.

TrunkSpace: As they always say, work begets work in the industry. Do you hope to do more showrunning in the future?
Vilaysack: Yes, I’d love to.

TrunkSpace: You are also currently producing a documentary called “Origin Story” which is very close to you in terms of the subject matter. Did you ever second guess taking that journey and putting it out there for others to see?
Vilaysack: Absolutely. It’s very personal.

TrunkSpace: Where are you in the process of completing the film?
Vilaysack: I’m in post production looking to finish the film and looking to submit to Sundance this year. I’m deep into finishing it.

TrunkSpace: When you first started the film there was no funny in it at all, but from what we understand, you have since gone in and added some lighter moments throughout. Was that an element that you felt the film needed in order to find an audience?
Vilaysack: I think you just need levity. It’s hard for us as humans to go through something and not have a place to take a break. Who wants to watch suffering? As much as a fine film “Dancer in the Dark” was, I’ll never see that again.

TrunkSpace: As a showrunner and creator, you’re creating content that could one day inspire others to create their own content. Do you ever think about that in the course of your day?
Vilaysack: I don’t think about it like that. I think about creating an environment where people can do their best work, where they feel safe and held, and where people can work hard and try things. I think about setting an example. I just think you treat people right and that’s a good idea.

It’s about being present with one another. It’s about getting into a sandbox and playing and it’s about making a cool show.

Visit Seeso to learn more about “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$” and to watch the latest season!

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Deep Focus

Jennifer Muro

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Photo By: Ricky Middlesworth

Spanning the different eras of the beloved franchise, the new animated miniseries “Star Wars: Forces of Destiny” features a number of the iconic female characters familiar to fans and spotlights the previously unseen moments that made them the heroes that they ultimately become. Many of the big screen talent involved in the franchise will be reprising their roles, including Daisy Ridley, Lupita Nyong’o, John Boyega, and Felicity Jones. The 16 episode run kicks off July 3 on Disney’s YouTube channel and then premieres on Disney Channel July 9.

We recently sat down with the series’ sole writer Jennifer Muro to discuss what it was like to get to play in the “Star Wars” sandbox, how far animation has come over the years, and why a series like “Forces of Destiny” is made with both children and adults in mind.

TrunkSpace: We’ve been talking quite a bit lately with people about diversity in writers’ rooms, particularly on scripted live action series. One area we have yet to touch on with people is how diversity is represented in the animated series landscape. Can you shed some light on that area of things?
Muro: Well, I do tend to do a lot more action shows and there are less women in that. It’s changing. It’s getting more and more these days. I think in the younger space there’s a lot more female writers. It’s slowly shifting, which is great. Writers’ rooms are fun. I love writers’ rooms. I think they’re great. I do a lot of freelance and when I get a chance to do a writers’ room I love it because I thrive in that kind of environment and bouncing ideas off of people. I write so many scripts all year long, having to do it solo… writers’ rooms are just so much easier for me. I hope I get to work with more women in the writers’ rooms at some point. That would be great.

TrunkSpace: Are writers’ rooms more common in the animated space with a series based on a franchise because there’s already an established universe and you’re working within parameters, either story-based or because of particular character restrictions or goals?
Muro: Yeah. Definitely having well known characters makes a huge difference in the creation. And, what version. Each show is a little different or each time the characters’ incarnation is a little different. There’s that too that you have to think about.

TrunkSpace: You’re working on “Star Wars” and that’s a property that has long had a diverse cast of characters… real and fictional in terms of their race/species. As a writer, how do you find the voices of those characters who not only have a different background than you, but actually have a different background than anybody?
Muro: (Laughter) I think there’s universal feelings no matter what and I think that’s really where you’re going to pull from. Motivation, human or humanoid or whatever that may be, I think there’s some universal things. And as long as you tap into those core universal themes, you’re going to be fine.

TrunkSpace: When you look at the worlds that most writers would love to play in the sandbox of, “Star Wars” is probably at the top of that list. What was the experience like for you in learning that you’d get to do that?
Muro: It was exciting. It was surreal. It was a dream come true. It was mind blowing and big. I wouldn’t say overwhelming… I would say exciting. It always feels like forever before you can talk about it or before it comes out and it’s finally here and it’s thrilling that it is. I can actually see toys and images and it’s a nice thing to happen.

TrunkSpace: Animation has changed so much over the years. When we were kids, animation wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is today. It wasn’t character-driven.
Muro: Right.

TrunkSpace: Today they feel like they’re made for kids, but at the same time, for adults as well.
Muro: I absolutely think so and I’m glad they’re doing that because the younger audience will gain a sophistication in what they expect in their storytelling. They’re not being talked down to. I’m glad they’re doing it that way because it just benefits everybody.

TrunkSpace: Even the production quality back when we were kids was shady at best. Something like the old “G.I. Joe” cartoon would suddenly have characters appear in a scene without pieces of clothing colored. (Laughter)
Muro: (Laughter) Yeah. Hanna-Barbera was notorious for that kind of thing where eyeballs would be colored in by mistake rather than being white. (Laughter) That happened all of the time.

We were fine with it as kids, I think. Sort of. You just kind of got through it, I guess. (Laughter) But yeah, it really matters these days. The quality is just phenomenal. I think we’re super lucky now. And for kids at heart, we’re still watching a lot of this stuff and we can go, “Oh wow, this is so much better!” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: And what’s so great about “Star Wars” is that it’s the kind of property that parents WANT to pass down to their children. It’s something that many of them share together and animation is a great way to sort of get the ball rolling.
Muro: Absolutely and I think that’s what we’re hoping to do, to start showing them this world in a truly accessible way.

TrunkSpace: With animation being so sophisticated these days, does it feel like you’re actually not working in the animation space at times?
Muro: Yeah, especially with this kind of project.

There is budgetary stuff. There are certain assets that you can’t use and that you can use so you have to limit certain things, but especially because you’re working with an “Empire Strikes Back” or a “Return of the Jedi”, so of course you’re thinking of the movies. I was thinking live action in that way and I think that’s probably a good thing.

TrunkSpace: Thinking in that real world way gives the characters themselves a more real world POV and kids certainly can pick up on that. They know when they’re being fed something that isn’t of the reality that they know, even when it takes place in fantastical worlds.
Muro: Yes, they do. You don’t want a false construct. Lucasfilm definitely did not want to do that. We wanted to make authentic “Star Wars” stories. I’m hoping they (kids) will see that, they should feel that, and that’s what we were going for.

TrunkSpace: With an established universe and characters, in a time when so much of it is being shared across multiple platforms and planned out for longterm roll out, how much of that did you have to take into consideration so as not to step on the creative toes of what’s being done elsewhere?
Muro: Well, the Lucasfilm’s Story Group makes a huge difference when working with them. They know their world so well and they’re not going to let anything not be true to the world and the characters. It was definitely a big job to tell all of the different stories, but it was an exciting one to go through all of time and space, literally, to tell these individual stories. But having them do it with me makes all of the difference.

TrunkSpace: Did you give any thought to the fact that the super die-hard “Star Wars” fans will be watching it and dissecting it based on their own knowledge of the universe?
Muro: Yeah. And I am one of those fans. (Laughter) I always worry. “Are we doing this right? Is this the right thing? Is this continuity okay?” But like I said, I had the Story Group with me, so that helps.

Photo By: Ricky Middlesworth

You want to write it for character. You want to write it for good story. But you also want to make sure you’re consistent. You always try to make everyone happy, but there’s always going to be someone who’s not going to be happy with stuff.

TrunkSpace: Especially in the social media age! (Laughter)
Muro: Exactly. And I have no doubt they’ll let me know! (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: You mentioned that you are a longtime “Star Wars” fan yourself. With that being said, it must be kind of cool to know that at some point down the road, writers will be mining your own work within the franchise for future stories and continuity?
Muro: You know, that’s interesting. That’s one of those surreal moments that hits you that it could possibly happen. I think once they’re out and I can see them, I think it will become more real to me. But, yeah, obviously that would be a dream come true.

TrunkSpace: If we were to go back and sit down with 15-year-old Jennifer Muro and we asked her what type of writer she wanted to be, would she have the same answers as you have now in terms of where you are in your career?
Muro: It’s really hard to get bigger than “Star Wars.” I think there’s some live action stories that I want to start telling and going more in that direction… but always keeping the door open in animation for amazing properties like this. There’s so many more stories to tell in animation, for live action properties.

I’m thrilled where I am, of course, but I just want to keep going and tell bigger stories.

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Deep Focus

Ira Rosensweig

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In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Ira Rosensweig, the filmmaker responsible for the digital series “Mystery Now,” which stars John Lithgow and serves as the companion prequel to the NBC comedy “Trial & Error.” He also previously directed the Clio Award-winning short “Neighbors 3: Zombies Rising” starrimg Seth Rogen and Zac Efron and is currently developing a number of original features, one of which he hopes to start shooting this summer.

We recently sat down with Rosensweig to discuss how he taps into the tone of an established series, how working with such high caliber talent can directly influence his career, and how he’d never ever EVER shoot 84 pages in four days again.

TrunkSpace: More and more networks are using companion shorts these days and they are continuing to grow in popularity. They’re often a continuation or precursor to the source material, but at the same time, they’re marketing pieces. How do you approach them as a director?
Rosensweig: I kind of approach them as I’d approach anything else, first trying to make the piece itself great, but then obviously you have to look back and see how it connects to the existing material and try to figure out the best ways to kind of weave into that and exploit that. I think with this project, “Mystery Now,” the script was written by two of the writers of “Trial & Error” so that was already taken care of. They obviously knew the world really well and figured out ways to come in and out of it, with the idea being that the story is about the murder of the John Lithgow character’s first wife. So in the Writer’s Room they had already figured out a lot of that stuff and were able to make the backstory that was in “Trial & Error” the main story here. I think the script itself was really rich and my job was to just kind of make it all come to life… try to make the piece feel as real as possible, at least at the very beginning. It was important to me to try to make it seem like it really could have been an unearthed kind of “Dateline” news magazine piece, but then as you go along I really wanted to play up a lot of fun formal elements and breaks and just try to figure out ways to keep it interesting and build the comedy. If you go too heavy in the front, it’s going to feel weird and you’re going to say to yourself, “This is too much of a parody.” You kind of have to find your groove and eventually figure out how to break out of that mold and be funny.

TrunkSpace: When you’re working within the tone of an existing property, it must help to have the actors from that property taking part because then you’re not really having to help them discover the tone because it’s a world they’re already familiar with?
Rosensweig: Yeah, it was great to work with John Lithgow because obviously he knows the characters so well so he snapped back into that mode and we just had a really great time, playing around and doing some improv. It was fun for him, I think, to revisit the character because they had finished filming awhile ago. But other than John, everybody else in the cast of “Mystery Now” was not a part of “Trial & Error” but they all really took it seriously and tried to inhabit their characters. I encouraged a lot of improvisation and a lot of what you see in the final piece is improv. We were lucky to find some really talented actors who knocked it out of the park.

(Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images for NBC)

TrunkSpace: And then you’ve got a piece like “Neighbors 3: Zombies Rising,” which obviously both Seth and Zac are dialed into their characters on and can just hit the ground running.
Rosensweig: Pretty much. With that, the challenge wasn’t figuring out the characters because as you said they knew them inside and out. The challenge with that was simply that we had them for 40 minutes.

TrunkSpace: Wow! You got a lot done in 40 minutes!
Rosensweig: Yeah. It was crazy. (Laughter) It was a crazy day where it was basically a junket. The traditional press junket has changed a little and now they film all of these vignettes for different networks, so AMC had them for an hour and subtracting hair and makeup and wardrobe, it was literally like 40 minutes to get that whole thing done.

TrunkSpace: Crafty must just be filled with coffee and Red Bulls on a day like that.
Rosensweig: (Laughter) Yeah. Basically. It was nuts.

But we threw them in there and they were amazing to work with. As I said, we had spent no time working on the character and just the entire time trying to make it as good and as funny as possible.

TrunkSpace: So is that a standard shoot schedule that you’re used to when working on a companion short like “Mystery Now?”
Rosensweig: Well, the windows for talent seem to be shrinking. To give you an example, with John Lithgow, that was shot over 45 minutes. I just did a thing for AMC promoting “Better Call Saul” and we literally had Bob Odenkirk for 15 minutes. It’s been good for me as a challenge just to be focused and try to get the best material possible in the least amount of time because I know in doing independent features and the schedule for TV, which are both things that I hope to be doing more of, I know they have to move quickly and I feel like this is a really great training ground for that.

TrunkSpace: It does seem particularly crazy in the TV landscape where everything is being made like mini films these days, and yet, the schedules remain breakneck.
Rosensweig: For sure. We’re talking about doing a feature this summer actually and it’s basically a 100 page script and I would hope we’ll have, maybe four weeks, so you’re talking about five pages a day. I actually did a web series a couple of years ago where we shot 84 pages of script in four days. Now, I never want to do that again. (Laughter) We did 20 episodes for that, so some of the episodes I think are really good and some of them not so good, but it was a great kind of experience that I, honestly, never want to do again. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: On the first day, super excited. By the time the fourth day roles around, insanity sets in.
Rosensweig: Oh yeah. It was literally staying up every night until 4:30 a.m., trying to figure out what you’re doing the next day and waking up two hours later and going to work.

TrunkSpace: But then on the fifth day when you’re wrapped, part of you was probably going… “I miss that.”
Rosensweig: (Laughter) No.

I also edited everything, so it was literally a four month grind where I was happy to be finished shooting and then it was, “Okay, let’s get to work and finish these things now.”

TrunkSpace: In working on these various projects with the caliber of talent you’ve had at your disposal, do you think it opens the eyes of executives, producers, and financiers to say, “Okay, this guy can step in and carry our feature or series?”
Rosensweig: I hope so. It’s weird… over the last couple of years, I’ve really been working with a lot of celebrity talent and I hadn’t done it that much before that. So I guess doing more of it convinces people of, “Oh, he’s good with talent and he can get things done quickly.” And I hope that is the case. It seems like the world of TV and film is now opening up a lot more. There have been projects, one in particular called “Guidance,” that I’ve literally been trying to make for eight years and it seems like we’re finally going to make it this summer, which is awesome.

TrunkSpace: Outside of directing, you also produce, write and edit. In a time when content truly is king, it must be beneficial to wear all of those hats and essentially control your own destiny.
Rosensweig: For sure. I was lucky coming up in the beginning when I was working for MTV Networks and Spike TV because I had a great boss and he basically let me write, produce, direct, and edit full commercial and promo campaigns for the network. So that’s kind of what I got used to doing. For me, the jobs really blend together and I love being able to wear a bunch of hats.

TrunkSpace: You’ve worked with some massive international brands on the commercial side of things as well. Is there an added layer of pressure on a project where you’re not only tasked with creating a great piece, but also having to deliver a specific message?
Rosensweig: There is a little bit of pressure, but honestly, there’s no pressure that’s put on me that’s greater than the one that I put on myself.

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