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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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Wingman Wednesday

Brittni Barger

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably a geek. It’s okay, we are too! In fact, saying you’re a geek is a bit of a badge of honor these days. And there’s plenty of geek variety to choose from if you don’t want to paint with a broad brush. Some of us may be comic book nerds. Others may be music snobs. Hell, we even know a few fantasy sports fanatics who could tell you more about Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts’ bowling scores than a Spider-Man fan could tell you about Peter’s proportionate strength of a spider.

One Fando Calrissian (see what we did there?) who waves her geek flag proudly is Brittni Barger, host of the PBS series “Beyond Geek,” which returns for season 2 this May.

We recently sat down with Barger to discuss when nerdom went mainstream, her love for improv and randomly enough, B-52’s frontman Fred Schneider.

TrunkSpace: For many people, the mention of PBS brings about thoughts of “Reading Rainbow,” “Sesame Street” and “Masterpiece Theatre.” When did they embrace the “cool” of a show like “Beyond Geek” and look to attract a hipper audience?
Barger: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think Joe Gillis, the director and creator, saw an opportunity that was kind of missing in that arena on PBS and so he wanted to fill that void. He had this idea that had been brewing for, I think he said 10 years at one point, and he just put a lot of work and effort into compiling all of these different geekdoms that he had found out about and wanted to explore further. It was all Joe that kind of put the pedal to the metal and got it done.

TrunkSpace: So how did you get involved in the series?
Barger: I got involved with the series because I had worked with Ivan Harder and Odin Abbott on “Smosh,” which is a web series on YouTube, and they also work on “Beyond Geek” so they recommended me for it.

TrunkSpace: So what were you looking to bring to the table and how do you view your particular voice and role on the show?
Barger: Well, I think why Joe chose me is that I have a definite quirkiness to me and I really get invested in people’s personal stories. When we did the initial interview for the job I kind of ended up asking Joe a lot of questions even though I was the one interviewing for it and I think he really liked that because I have a genuine interest in the human story and I think that’s what he was looking for in a host.

TrunkSpace: Do you have a journalistic background or do you approach your job of host as more of a storyteller?
Barger: Absolutely, yeah… just pure storytelling. I don’t have any background in journalism whatsoever. It’s all acting. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: From your perspective, when did geek culture become mainstream and accepted?
Barger: Right after I got out of high school… when I went to college I saw a turnaround in geek culture becoming mainstream pop culture. Well actually, maybe even before that because I remember when I was a kid how popular the “X-Men” animated series was and I remember loving comic books as a kid and into my adulthood. I feel like my generation specifically kind of took the reigns and said, “This is what we like and you have to be okay with it now.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: Do you think kids or teenagers who are into geek culture these days have an easier time being accepted for those interests than those of previous generations?
Barger: Yeah. I think what people are passionate about in general is more acceptable nowadays. Being fringe is cool.

TrunkSpace: You have a background in improv. We would imagine you can put those skills to use in your duties as a host because you have to be on your toes in any given situation.
Barger: Absolutely. There’s the general rule of “Yes, And…”, so you’re accepting what’s given to you and you’re building off of that. Joe would give me a set list of questions that he wanted to be hit throughout the interview and then he would give me the freedom to play around and ask questions that I was interested in personally. And so I got to get my own story that me as a viewer would want to hear from the people that I was interviewing, which was a lot of fun.

TrunkSpace: As a fan of geek culture yourself, was there a moment in the production of “Beyond Geek” where you felt more like a fan than a host?
Barger: Oh yeah! I got to learn lightsaber combat. They took me to a trainer who was a professional lightsaber combat trainer named Novastar and I got to learn all of the steps of his combat system. And then we compiled a kind of a choreography that we played out in this epic lightsaber battle. That was just the epitome of my nerdery reaching its peak. (Laughter) It was one of the best experiences of my life.

TrunkSpace: And that’s in Season 2, correct?
Barger: That is in season 2, yeah. That’s the whole “Star Wars” themed episode.

TrunkSpace: Is there a particular cup of geek tea that you’re most drawn too? Is there a genre or franchise that you’d consider your favorite?
Barger: I really, really love graphic novels and books in general. My biggest passion is books. I’m a bibliophile through and through, so anything that has to do with that… or the telling of stories in different ways to tell the stories. So, I would say I’ve been really, really big into graphic novels the last few years. Batman is obviously a mainstay of that kind of fiction for me. And then there’s a lot of really… companies like Dark Horse and Image Comics have just really changed the landscape of what graphic novels are nowadays, so that’s where my passion lies for sure.

Barger in season 2 of “Beyond Geek”

TrunkSpace: Speaking of books, you work on another project that might have the best title of all time… “Brittni’s Book Boner Bistro.” Can you tell us about that?
Barger: (Laughter) I was friends with these creators in Sacramento called FourLetterNerds and they really wanted to create content with me, but I’ve always had kind of a problem with YouTube in that there’s just so much… it’s inundated with people that have nothing to say. So if I did a show I wanted to make sure that it had a very specific focus and something that I had a lot of things to talk about. And so that thing to me was books. They wanted to put a spin on it where it had equal parts my personality and my opinion on books or introducing an audience to a different kind of literature that they might not be exposed to normally… and that kind of covered all of the genres. That was our main goal was that we would hit a bunch of different genres and that we would make it a comedy and use improv… write out scripts but then use improv around it and just kind of play and have fun. So that was the burst of “Brittni’s Book Boner Bistro.”

TrunkSpace: It’s going back full circle to the start of our conversation where we mentioned “Reading Rainbow.”
Barger: I don’t think they would accept that title on PBS. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: Going back to the improv side of things, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in it?
Barger: I was an acting intern at B Street Theatre in Sacramento, California, which is kind of where I cut my teeth on improv and acting. It was a ten month acting internship and included in the internship was an improv class. I had never taken improv before. I had always mistakenly judged it as a lower form of art, which was idiotic of me, but I just didn’t know any better. So, when I took the classes, I kind of realized that it’s one of the highest forms of art because you have to use a whole new set of tools in order to accomplish it. I grew to appreciate it very much. Then I auditioned for their improv sketch company at B Street and I got into that. We did five consecutive seasons of a show called B Street Live. A lot of times it’s kid of unheard of to get paid to do improv and it was a very rare experience that I got to be a part of… to have improv be my job for five years, which was really cool.

TrunkSpace: Is there a particular exercise or type of skit… and forgive us if we’re using the wrong terminology… that you enjoy the most when it comes to improv?
Barger: One of the warm-ups that just cracked me up every time and made me feel so loose and ready to go was… and I don’t even know if this is an actual improv game, but that’s the best part of improv is that it’s such a new art form that people are constantly adding to it. There aren’t any real rules about what it has to be. It’s still growing. And so one of the games that I liked to play was called “Hey, Fred Schneider.” Fred Schneider is from the B-52s and so you would sing a song that went…
(In Fred Schneider’s voice)
“Hey, Fred Schneider… what are you doooooing?”
And then you would go around in a circle and you would have to answer in the Fred Schneider voice what you were doing and it could be anything.
(In Fred Schneider’s voice)
“I’m flying a plannnne into the sunnnn.” (Laughter)
And you could work off of that, so it could be a thematic kind of Fred Schneider game or you could just be completely random and it was an exercise that opened your mind so completely to the fact that everything is possible. Anything and everything is possible in improv and to accept that.

TrunkSpace: I hope Fred Schneider finds out about this game that he has inadvertently given birth to.
Barger: (Laughter) I do too! I wonder if he’s aware.
TrunkSpace: It would be amazing if Fred Schneider sat in on a round of “Hey, Fred Schneider” one night.
Barger: Oh my God! That’s so meta! (Laughter)

Barger in season 2 of “Beyond Geek”

Barger can be seen in season 2 of “Beyond Geek,” which premieres in May. She will also be starring in a theater show called “Stupid Fucking Bird” at Capital Stage in Sacramento, California.

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