Writers on the Web: Interview with Creators of Indie Series Award and IAWTV Award-Nominated Series “Progress”

oscarandadamWith seven Indie Series Awards nominations and two IAWTV Award nominations so far this year, the new web series Progress has been, well… progressing quite nicely! (Cut a little slack for the bad joke… I’m writing this early in the morning!)

Progress is a Sherlockian steampunk cyber-thriller set in XIX Century England, with a steam-powered internet and Jack The Ripper posting encrypted files of his crimes on the Victorian version of WikiLeaks.

Since we’re on the subject of casting this month, I had the pleasure to chat with writer/producer Armando Saldanamora, director/producer Nicole Wright, and actor Derek Houck, who plays Adam Rhett, a hilariously evil “mad troll,” about their casting process and finding the right actors for each role.

Armando Saldanamora

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Nicole Wright

A TV writer for almost 20 years, Armando Saldanamora came to Hollywood to work as script consultant and ended up writing three features that were produced and released (one of them internationally).  Nicole Wright graduated from Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts with honors and went on to produce a variety of shorts and features that range from comedic pieces to dramatic documentaries to bilingual musicals. In 2011, Armando and Nicole created Flawless Victory Media, a production company that specializes in high-quality web series.

Derek Houck

Derek Houck

As an actor, Derek Houck has appeared in CommunityUnited States of Tara, and stars as Napoleon in the web series Napoleon Bon Appétit. Other TV and film credits include Love That Girl! and Aaron Mento’s Standards of Living.

Rebecca: What inspired the story for Progress?

Armando & Nicole: It was during one the many WikiLeaks uproars. There were a couple of pundits on TV bellowing how dangerous these leaked documents were to national security by making the most dramatic hyperboles you could imagine: “This is worse than terrorism! This is worse than a homicidal rampage! This is just as… as if Jack the Ripper had Internet access!” — at that point I thought “Hey, that could make a nifty web series.”

R: Had either of you worked on a web series before? What was your career path before and then what inspired you to step into the web space?

A & N: There seem to be a lot of producers who use the web as a stepping stone to arrive at cinema or TV, but in our case it was the opposite. We were writing for TV and producing features, and ultimately we had to shape our work to the decisions of a lot of people who don’t produce films and TV shows for a living. You know, the marketing department, the advertising agency, or even the bank or legal department end up making the final creative decisions. At that time we were amazed at the creative and innovative content stemming from the web and we thought, “What if we produced a series for a medium that requires nothing but uploading your material? A medium where the audience can judge by themselves if they like a series or not?”

R: Please tell us about your process for casting Progress. Did you hire a casting director or cast it yourself? What were the specific challenges you faced in finding actors for each role?

A & N: Since Progress is a series for the web and about the web, we used the internet for every stage of the production process. So when the development phase was ready, we posted casting notices on Actors Access and L.A. Casting requesting actors who could meet our character descriptions. Some examples of the character descriptions were: “A young-adult Oliver Twist, if Oliver Twist was a hacker” or “A cross between Julian Assange and The Mad Hatter.” We uploaded the sides and asked actors to record themselves reading the lines directly to their webcam. Casting was done with each of the producing team members in our respective homes, texting each other, “Who do you like best for the role of the hacker?” It was not until callbacks that we actually met our actors in person. Most of development, pre-production, and post-production was done through the internet.

R: Did you decide to go SAG-AFTRA or non-union? What factors contributed to your decision? Did you encounter any hurdles with the union?

A & N: In the end we went with SAG-AFTRA because we needed the best cast we could find and we didn’t want the union to be a determinant factor for who could we cast.  We didn’t have any problems with making our project SAG-AFTRA, since they’re making a lot of efforts to adapt to the demands of the new media. In the end that is the trend and the same will happen eventually with WGA, DGA and all of the institutions that work in the entertainment industry. This is a new world and the old systems have to renew themselves or be left out.

urlR: Derek—in addition to being an actor, you are also a content creator yourself. Please tell us about your web series Napoleon Bon Appétit and what made you decide to get into the web space.

Derek: Napoleon Bon Appétit was conceived by my producing partner, Katherine Browning, as a pun. But while most puns die shortly after they are uttered, I decided to take this one and write a script around it. Katherine and I had been looking for something to self-produce together, and Napoleon Bon Appétit seemed like it would be funny, fairly inexpensive, and a chance for us to bring in a lot of friends as guest stars. We created our first seven episodes over one weekend, and we liked the experience so much we decided to produce a second season.

R: What specific challenges did you face when auditioning for the role of Adam Rhett in Progress? What drew you to the role?

D: I actually knew Nicole from a children’s show we both acted in a few years before Progress.  She contacted me and told me she was working on a new project with a character I might be right for. My audition was through a webcam, which ended up being very appropriate for the character. I then attended callbacks and did some chemistry reads with some of the people auditioning for the role of Oscar.

The biggest challenge with the character of Adam Rhett was figuring out what kind of voice to give him. Ultimately, I settled on a sing-songy mixture of upper and lower-class British. Adam loves to play with people’s expectations, and creating a distinct dialect allowed him to simultaneously rally his visitors to his cause while mocking the objects of his derision.

R: Tell us about your experience acting the role. What did you love about the script? Also, do you find acting in web series any different than acting in any other medium? If so, why?

D: With a web series, you have to take into account the wide range of devices people will be watching your content on. You face may be several inches in size on one screen, and only a few pixels on another. It forces you to express yourself through your whole body in order to convey your message across all mediums.

With Progress, there are so many in-jokes, clues, and references crammed into the dialogue. You can’t just be word-perfect, you must understand the different meanings behind every word, even every syllable, that you utter. In order for Adam Rhett to mock something like the Forever Alone meme, I first had to know what the meme was about. It’s a lot of homework, but it helps create what is, hopefully, a very rich performance that conveys new info each time you watch it.

R: Progress is planned to be a ten-episode series. How many episodes have you shot, and how can people support Progress going forward?

A & N: The first season of Progress is three episodes and we posted them on YouTube. For the next season we’re thinking of doing five episodes. We really want to take care of every single detail and make a product as good as anything you can watch in the theatre or on premium cable. Audience can donate through through a link on our website and we are preparing a big crowdfunding campaign for season two — but that’s just the beginning. We’re planning on doing several events to raise our funds that go from screenings at conventions to a steampunk “high tea.” Trust us, it’s going to be really fun.

Watch Season One of Progress at www.ProgressTheSeries.com!

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