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!