Thursday, September 5, 2013

Matthew G. Anderson on the "Theater People" web series

What was your filmmaking background before making Theater People?

MATTHEW: I’d made a few short films and a feature when I was in my late teens/early 20s – about 15 years or so ago.  Film was always my passion and so I threw myself into it as early as I could.  Unfortunately, back then, that necessarily meant spending a ton of money.  After breaking the bank on my first projects, I realized I just couldn’t afford to continue pouring my own money into the camera and I turned my focus to writing, which is free.

I spent a few years trying to put together financing for one ultra-low budget, two-characters-in-one-location kind of script after another, but there was just no money to be found.  Or at least I couldn’t find it.  I’d had an idea for a much bigger script – a Hollywood action film – and decided to try writing it just to see if I could.  That script got me some attention out west and led to me spending about 10 years writing for the studios (on spec, of course, so still no money).

Where did you get the idea to create the web series?

MATTHEW: Last year, pretty crispy from the studio spec thing, I moved back to the Twin Cities and knew that I needed to reconnect with what I’d loved about writing and filmmaking in the first place.

My dream (ugh – here’s where he starts talking about his dreams) has always been to develop and produce actor-driven independent films in the Cities with this crazy deep pool of talent that’s been fostered by the huge local theater scene.  Even going out to L.A. was a means to that end – the thought being that if I could get a script sold, I’d have the resources to come back here and make the stuff I wanted to be making.  So, upon coming back, I knew I needed to do something that was in line with that goal, even if only on a small scale.

I’d attended a symposium in which a panel of short film makers from way back talked about the benefits of making original content for the web rather than following the traditional “indie short” paradigm of making a standalone piece and scrambling for festival slots or cable airtime, so I felt like that format was a real possibility.  I also felt like it would be a comparatively low-impact way – in terms of cost, time and effort – to get back behind the camera after 15 years, as opposed to making a feature.  (This belief was just incredibly wrong, by the way.)

I’d spent about 10 years acting in the Cities before turning my attention exclusively to writing, so I knew the world and knew that it held endless comedic and dramatic potential.  And since part of my goal was to reconnect with as many of the local actors I wanted to work with as possible, what better milieu than theater?

What was the writing process like?

MATTHEW: Not nearly as ahead of the game as I’d hoped.

We started shooting in September with the scripts for the first two episodes more or less finalized.  I had a rough outline of all 10 eps that we used to plan the shoots and schedule the actors, but the actual shooting scripts tended to get delayed by all the other day-to-day responsibilities of production and life.

When we started planning “Theater People,” I sampled a bunch of web series to get familiar with the form.  Things I learned:

-There are a billion web series out there.
-There are a few good web series out there.
-The key to the good web series is the writing.

It’s amazing how much original, serialized, narrative content is available online.  I think most people are completely unaware of how much there is.  I know I was.  You surf around online or check out dedicated channels via YouTube or Hulu or Crackle or a bunch of other places I’d never heard of and you’ll find more web shows than you could ever watch.

There’s big, glossy, clearly high-budget Hollywood stuff starring name actors, Oscar-nominated actors… there’s little stuff shot by a dude with a flip phone… and there’s everything in between.  And across the spectrum, you can find really good stuff at every level but the vast majority is pretty bad.  What distinguishes the good stuff is the caliber of the writing.  I was watching some series that clearly cost a million dollars that distinctly felt like they’d been written on set the day of the shoot.

So my goal for Theater People was to have the pages for every shoot in the actors’ hands a full week before the shoot date.  That was a good goal.

The way it actually worked out, I think I did always manage to get pages to people prior to the shoot date.  Usually it was about a week.  Sometimes it was only a day or two.  But having that priority in place was essential both to the quality of the dialogue, the quality of the performances and the efficiency of the shoot.  I found that if the actors were prepped on their scenes before getting to the set, we were usually able to grab great stuff in 3-4 takes.  If they weren’t… well, the number “17” popped up occasionally.

What was the thinking behind the Theater People Minute segments?

MATTHEW: During production, we knew it was going to be a long time before anybody would see the show itself.  I didn’t want to start releasing episodes until everything was in the can and we could guarantee a regular weekly launch for every episode – 10 eps over 10 weeks.  It’s hard enough to build an audience; we didn’t want people to have to wonder when (or even if) the next episode would be released.

But that meant we were looking at shooting for almost a year before anybody would see what we were working on.  We knew that we had good material, were getting good footage, etc. and we were confident the final product would be something people would enjoy, but asking people to work for free for months on end without having some sense of the quality of the production was asking for quite a leap of faith.

So about six months before the launch, we released a more or less completed cut of Ep1 for just 48 hours as a sneak peak.  The episode was funny and looked professional and the performances were great… it built some confidence for the project as we moved forward.  We also cut together a TRAILER with the footage we’d gotten by that point and that served as a nice promo tool as well.

What we still needed, though, was something to raise awareness of the series beyond our friends and family before we launched it – we didn’t want to premiere to empty theaters, so to speak – and Facebook seemed like our best bet.

Facebook’s a tricky little organism.  It’s obviously a great tool for connecting both within a local community and across community borders, but it does have some challenging, semi-obscure rules that take some figuring out. 

When you start up a Facebook page for an organization – say, for example, – you try to drum up as much visibility and as many Likes as possible to build your audience.  But if someone visits your page, or even Likes your page, and then doesn’t visit again for a while, you lose your visibility.  They don’t get your status updates anymore.  They probably forget about you entirely.  So unless you’re posting content regularly and giving your community something with which to engage, you’re losing those viewers.

The “Theater People Minutes” were a way for us to generate content in the months before we launched so that we could build that Facebook audience as well as our website mailing list.  The fact that the Minutes were short and silent meant that each could be shot in a few hours, edited quickly and then released once a week leading up to the series launch.

Originally, they were going to be unconnected spots built around little theater-y slogans – “Theater People: Backrubs Are Our Business”, etc.  However, after we put together the first spot (“Hugs, Not Handshakes”), we found that we really loved the character played by Grant Henderson.  His deadpan performance was perfectly suited for the silent comedy mode – he made a great, wry, uncomfortable everyman in the Buster Keaton tradition – and, as a non-theater person surrounded by theater people, he gave us a fun perspective on some of the theatrical eccentricities we were showcasing.

As a bonus, having a recurring character provided a through line that encouraged people to watch for the next Minute to find out what happened to him next.  It became a little mini-series of its own, very much in the spirit of the actual series.

What camera package did you use and what did you love/hate about it?

MATTHEW: We shot everything on the mighty Canon Rebel t3i – a little $800 DSLR camera that I picked up in L.A. before I moved back.  I road tripped from California to Minnesota with my friend Jen Rand and the two of us shot a little narrative short film along the way called "Recovery."  Sort of part improvised art film/part camera test.

Like I say, I hadn’t been behind a camera in 15 years and I wanted something that wasn’t a huge financial investment just to get my feet wet again.  Making Recovery, it was stunning to realize exactly how much the technology had changed in my years away from indie film production.  When I’d been making films, it was still incredibly expensive to make anything that looked even remotely professional.  Video looked awful – my first feature was shot on then-cutting edge 30fps high-def video and looked uncomfortably like a soap opera – and film required camera rentals, film stock, processing, etc., that quickly ran the budget up to five digits even for a small short project.  Now here was this little, unassuming DSLR that captured beautiful, 24fps high-def footage and could be bought outright for under a grand.

If you asked a knowledgeable cameraman, they’d be able to explain its limitations as a professional camera far better than I could.  It is still an entry-level, consumer grade piece of equipment.  But I felt from that first experiment that it was 100% sufficient for shooting a series that would primarily be viewed on computer screens and none of my experience making Theater People disabused me of that belief.  In fact, we rented out a local independent theater for a cast and crew screening a few weeks ago and projected the episodes onto a 20-foot screen and they still looked really good.

Put it this way: Theater People was shot by a first-time cinematographer (me) with two lights on a ridiculously minimal production schedule and it looks legit.  I can’t think of a better endorsement for a camera than that.

How did you schedule production — one episode at a time, or all scenes for each location?

MATTHEW: Our first scheduling priority was actually the actors.  We were making a show that had a 20-person principal cast, all of whom were unpaid and had jobs and plays they were doing and lives and all of that.  If you’re not paying people, you can’t tell them they need to be in town on this date or they can’t accept that show because it’ll completely wreak havoc with your shoot schedule.  So we just kept current with their availability and planned the production accordingly.  When we’d sit down to plan a shoot, the first question was always, “Okay, who’s available this weekend?”

Lydia Bolder, my co-producer, was the real hero on this front.  She was the one who tracked all of our actor needs, location needs, script needs, etc. over the course of an 11-month production.  She’d figure out who we had available and which scenes we could shoot.  Then she’d break out the locations we needed and we’d go a-scouting.

Without money, finding locations is a big challenge, particularly for a project with so many locations and such specific requirements.  (Here’s the thing about theaters: they usually have plays in them.)  We were incredibly blessed to have found so many cool, supportive people who were willing to donate their spaces to an amateur-looking outfit for something called a “web series.”  We paid a few nominal location fees for places that we absolutely needed and couldn’t find elsewhere, but I think the entire location budget for the series probably came to about $500.  
Considering that Ep1 alone needed 10 locations including an office, a restaurant and five different theaters, that’s pretty amazing.  God bless the good people of the Twin Cities.  This would literally have been an impossible undertaking without them.

Once we had a location, we’d shoot everything we needed in that space with those actors.  For example, we lived over at Gremlin Theatre for four nights and shot all of the Crowley play stuff for Episodes 5, 6, 7 and 8, which comprised the vast majority of the scenes for that cast.  If something came up that required us to reschedule a shoot – say, for example, not one but *two* blizzards during those four nights at Gremlin – we just did what we could and relied on the commitment and flexibility of our actors, who came through for us every time.

Did the episodes change much in the editing process?

MATTHEW: Very little.  Despite the writing process sometimes taking longer than I’d hoped, the resulting shooting scripts were actually pretty tight.  They were all 10 pages long with the idea that they’d result in episodes of 10 minutes or less.  That’s on the long side for a comedic web series, but since this one had an A story and a B story running concurrently and a continuous narrative, I felt like it could sustain 7-10 minutes.

Due to the nature of the production, we shot very little extra material.  Aside from a few impromptu dialogue improvements that were decided upon on the set before we started rolling, there was no improvisation, so we got what was in the script and moved on to the next setup.

The only real differences between the episodes as written and the finished episodes were the few occasions where something just didn’t work.  There were a couple occasions where the tone of a scene didn’t jibe with the rest of the episode.  There were a couple occasions where technical difficulties, particularly with sound, meant that we didn’t get the footage we needed and the scene had to be cut outright.  (Thanks, flight paths.)  Considering the quick and dirty nature of the production, though, there were surprisingly few instances of this kind of thing.

One error I did make with the construction of the scripts is that I wrote Theater People more like a feature film than as a series of 10 episodes that people would be watching over a long period of time.  As such, there are some jokes that I’m sure don’t connect because I didn’t build in the repetition necessary to make them play. 

As an example: in Ep2, Jamy casts a homeless man, Burt, in the Crowley play.  Then, in Ep7, another guy shows up out of nowhere and explains that he’s taking over Burt’s role because Burt got a better offer.  So this guy takes over and opens the show.  Then in Ep10, another guy shows up out of nowhere and explains that he’s “Gus.  I’m taking over for Bill.”  Kinda funny… as long as you know who Bill is.  But if you watched that episode three weeks earlier and don’t remember the one scene where we even hear Bill’s name… that joke’s probably not gonna land as solidly as I’d have liked.  That’s just bad writing.  Or, as I like to think of it, a great opportunity for growth.

Moral of the story: binge watch Theater People!

What was the smartest thing you did?

MATTHEW: Cast really good actors, then direct them.

I continue to believe that the local theater community is the greatest resource we have when it comes to film production in the Twin Cities.  We have hundreds of experienced actors with amazing skill sets and incredible devotion to their craft.  The most wrongheaded thing I’ve heard some people say about stage actors is that they “can’t do film” because theater acting is such a different beast.  It is a different beast, but what makes theater actors great is that they’ve got these tools that have been honed for years that allow them to act anywhere.  They’re able to take direction, make adjustments, and deliver the performance that’s right for the medium, whether that’s stage, tv, web or the big screen.

Of course, you have to direct them to that performance.  That’s your job as a director – it’s right there in the job title.  You’re the one who knows how the final product is supposed to turn out, so it’s your responsibility to make sure the actors have the information they need to give the best performance they can give.  If you put your time in guiding the performances, if you’re able to articulate what you want, there’s very little that actors in this town can’t deliver.  I really believe that.

(Second smartest thing: bring on a good composer.  Our guy, Mike Hallenbeck, delivered like crazy on this thing and it’s truly astonishing how good music bumps everything up to a different level.)

The dumbest?

MATTHEW: Honestly – thinking that making a web series was gonna be way easier than making a feature film.  That was pretty dumb.  You could make a reasonably ambitious no-budget indie feature with… what?  5-10 principal roles, 10 or so locations and a dozen shoot days?  By the time we finished this season of Theater People we had 20+ principal roles (plus dozens of featured roles and extras), 20-30 locations and 32 shoot days over 11 months.
I remember telling people we’d shoot in September and October and have the whole thing done by the end of 2012.  Oops.

What's your plan to promote (and monetize) the series?

MATTHEW: That’s a great question.  We’re still exploring our options.  The great challenge once you’ve made something like this is to get some eyes on it.  Theater People isn’t the kind of thing that’s gonna go viral – it’s just not built like that.  Our hope is just to get it on as many radars as possible: theater communities, comedy communities, independent filmmaking communities, the world at large.  We need to check in with the channels that exist specifically for this kind of programming.  Based on the feedback we’ve gotten, we’ve got a show here that people really enjoy.  Both theater and non-theater people are finding it really entertaining; now we just have to get it to them.

As for monetizing… that’s even trickier, as there’s not really a system in place for that yet.  We’ve got a DONATE PAGE on our website and we’ve received some donations through that, which has really meant a lot to us.  As “no budget” as it was, the production still cost money and that money came out of our pockets.  If we could find a way to break even on it or even turn a small profit so we could pay something to the people who worked on it, that’d be amazing.

At the heart of it, though, Theater People wasn’t made to make money.  It’s why we purposely didn’t solicit investment money or start a Kickstarter campaign or any of that.  This was our “getting started” project.  This was to make something that proved the viability of this kind of enterprise – to show that entertaining, professional material could be successfully developed and produced in the Twin Cities with local talent. 

That Theater People was shot primarily by a three-person crew with consumer-grade equipment and no money and turned out as well as it did feels like a success to me.  It says, “Think of what we could do with a budget.”  The next step is to prove that a project like this can be financially successful and is, therefore, a worthy prospect for investment.  That will absolutely be one of the goals moving forward.

What's the future plan for Theater People -- are you planning a second series?

MATTHEW: We definitely aren’t ruling it out.  There’s still plenty of material out there and it was a blast to make.  I have some ideas for storylines.  So, yeah, I’d love to do another season somewhere down the road.  I think it’ll be a while, though.

Like I said above, we want to put ourselves in a position to make projects that are creatively successful but also financially successful and self-sustaining.  We’ve got a feature that we want to be shooting this time next year – a change of pace in that it’s sort of a classical/Gothic suspense piece (though still with a lot of wit) – so the intervening time is going to be all about positioning ourselves to do that project right. 

We have a couple short films that will hopefully pave the way and help us assemble a crew and production team that we want to work with… and then comes the big hurdle of raising the money.  We don’t need a big budget to do it well, but we do need more than we can self-finance.  So that’ll be when we find out how well these initial projects have set us up as a viable investment option.

Those are the priorities for now.  Once the feature’s done, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I felt like returning to the world of Theater People.

Finally, what did you learn from this production that you'll take to future projects?

MATTHEW: So much.  Unbelievable amounts of much.

Probably the biggest thing I discovered was that, as a writer, it’s vital to be unrealistic.
There were so many moments all through the process of producing Theater People when I found myself laughing because we were shooting something that I absolutely thought wouldn’t be logistically feasible.  I wrote the whole thing with the gloves off, not letting the scripts be bound by production considerations, just following what I thought would be funny.  I was sure we’d have to make changes and cut things and simplify things, but I didn’t let it impede the writing… and damn if we didn’t get everything after all.

It’s a huge testament to the talents of my co-producers, Lydia Bolder and Crist Ballas, that we were able to successfully problem-solve every production challenge we ran into.  Whether it was something as simple as a backstage flash paper explosion or as comparatively complex as an FBI raid or a song and dance routine from a prison musical, we were able to achieve everything that was on the page. 

If I’d been more realistic while writing, Theater People would be missing an awful lot of what I love most about it.

Theater People Episode 1 - "Day Jobs" from Theater People on Vimeo.

No comments: