Writers on the Web: Interview with Amy Berg, TV Writer and Creator of “Caper”

Amy BergHaving interviewed several successful TV writers recently, I’ve realized that there’s a movement on the rise.  A number of working writers, increasingly seeing that web television is the wave of the future, are staying ahead of the curve by transitioning their work from traditional media to the internet.

I had the honor to interview writer Amy Berg (Person of Interest, Eureka, Leverage, The 4400) about her own journey into the interwebs with her new series, Caper.

Rebecca: What inspired the story for Caper?  

Amy: The show is a collision of the two genres I adore the most – crime and science fiction. I wrote the show with my buddy Mike Sizemore who’s a writer out of the U.K. He’s also a geek and, like me, appreciates a well-crafted heist movie. We’re both heavily into comics as well.

Although there’s a crush of superhero films and television shows out there right now, there’s a CAPER Cast EDITwhole subgenre that’s being ignored. To me, alter egos are much more fascinating than the heroes themselves. They’re the ones keeping secrets, carrying burdens, and risking their lives without hope of reward…unless you’re Tony Stark and you’re out and proud as the people’s savior, or you’re sitting on billions like Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen. For those guys, drama has to be manufactured in the form of villains. Or girl problems. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m not invested. I’m more interested in people who struggle through life like the rest of us. People who don’t know where the next rent check is coming from or whose ex-boss is making their life hell because they quit some stupid job. That’s the basis of Caper. It’s a character comedy about four friends who are just trying to get by. They just happen to save the world on the side.

Rebecca: How did the partnership with Geek & Sundry and Hulu come about? 

Amy: Felicia Day [creator of The Guild] and I had been looking to collaborate again ever since Eureka and we had semi-regular lunches in which we lamented the fact that our schedules never mesh. I shot a pilot for TNT last year, after which I had my first week off in the history of ever. There was a confluence of events in the span of that week that led to the creation of Caper. Mike was visiting from London and I coincidentally had a lunch with Felicia already on the books. By that time, she’d already founded Geek & Sundry and was looking for original content. I brought Mike along to the lunch and we pitched the idea for Caper to her and BAM…that was it. Felicia and I have known each other a while and worked together before. We trust one another’s creative instincts. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to do this anywhere else.

Hulu came to the table after the series was already shot. They’d heard about what we were doing and apparently Geek & Sundry’s excitement about the show rubbed off on them. They made a deal to air the show on their network as well, which was unexpected and awesome.

Rebecca: You have a lot of experience in writing/producing for television – what made you decide to step into the web space, and what unique challenges did you find in writing and producing for new media?

Amy: I’ve never worked in the digital medium before, but it’s the future of television and I’d much rather be out in front of the revolution than scrambling to keep up. And if I can be a small part of showing people what’s possible on the web, that’s great. The answer is anything and everything, by the way.

We could’ve eschewed the online world entirely with this series and just pitched Caper straight to television outlets, but I wanted to actually make the thing. I’ve had enough experiences in development to know how the process gets bogged down by too many cooks in the kitchen. My production company is the studio on Caper. I don’t have overseers telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. This is just me and my friends making a thing. And right now, the only place I can have that experience is on the internet.

Having worked in television for so long, moving to digital series was challenging. Budget being the biggest and most obvious hurdle. I’m accustomed to having five million dollars to make a pilot or three million to make a episode of something. This is very different. This is like going back to film school. In fact, it literally was. Both my producer, Peter Dress, and my DP, Joel Deutsch, are guys I made shorts with back in the day.

Obviously with a micro budget you can’t do all the things you’d like to do. If you try and fail, you’ll see the lack of production value on screen. I called in a lot of favors on this one. As a result, we’ve got talent in front of and behind the camera and we ended up shooting something that doesn’t look much like what people are used to seeing on YouTube. This isn’t a show where people talk to the camera or are confined to a single location. There are establishing shots, exteriors, and multiple camera set-ups for each scene. This is a television series that just happens to be airing on the web.

The other major consideration is time. You have less time to make the thing, and less real estate to tell the story. Everything is compressed. There’s only so much you can accomplish in 8 to 12 minute episodes.

CAPER Screen 2 EDITRebecca: What was the casting process like? How many rounds of auditions and callbacks did you have?

Amy: I’ve worked in television long enough to build up my own repertory theater of actors. Abby Miller (Penny) and Beth Riesgraf (Alexia) are former colleagues and friends and were my first phone calls. I met Harry Shum Jr. (Luke) and Hartley Sawyer (Dagr) through the casting process. They auditioned and were the best actors for the roles. No callbacks. I didn’t need them. When you know you’ve found them, you just know. I feel blessed to have them in the show and in my life. All four of them are super talented and humble, which is a rare and wonderful combination.

Most of our guest stars are folks I’ve worked with before – Scott Bakula, Colin Ferguson, James Callis, and Joel Gretsch among them. We found day players through our casting agent, Paul Ruddy, who is also a longtime friend. He’s the best at finding diamonds in the rough, particularly actors with unique personalities who can do a lot with a little.

Rebecca: Were there any special considerations you made for casting for new media as opposed to network or cable television? Did you consider an actors’ digital footprint as far as Twitter followers, Facebook fans, YouTube subscribers, etc. in your casting decisions?

Amy: Oh gosh, no. I realize this might be important to some producers, but it couldn’t be less important to me. I don’t care if you’re on Twitter or not, as long as you’re talented and want to be here. In the end, the success of any series relies on three things: concept, characters, and the charisma of your actors.

Rebecca: What qualities, besides talent, did you look for in the actors you cast?

Amy: I’m always frustrated by the portrayals of women I see on screen, especially in superhero movies. Their idea of a strong woman is a snarky sex object who talks tough but relies on her femininity to get ahead. I made it my mission on Caper to present two incredibly strong women who are smart but flawed, brave but vulnerable. They’re real people with very different personalities. Like women actually are. This meant finding actresses who can embody all those things. For me, Abby and Beth were obvious choices. They’re just that good.

Aside from talent, the only other real consideration is personality. It helps to not be an asshole. I have a strict no-BS policy that everyone must abide by, both cast and crew. I wanted a group of people who would make the experience enjoyable for everyone. This project was a labor of love, not a money-making endeavor. We were jumping into a foxhole together and you need good people by your side. The fact is, we get to make things for a living. If you don’t think that’s incredibly cool, I don’t want you on my set.

Rebecca: What advice would you give to a writer/producer just starting out? Would you recommend creating a web series as a viable way for writers to break in, in your opinion?

CAPER BTS Pic2 EDITAmy: My best advice is to learn how to make a mean cup of coffee. If you start out thinking you’re a writer, director, or producer, you’ve got the wrong mindset. People rarely make it in this business on talent alone. There’s a lot of learning left to do after college and you can’t be afraid to start at the bottom.

If you want to make a web series, do it. But what happens if you sell it to a network and you don’t have the experience to back it up? They’ll bring in someone above you to take it over, and then it’s no longer yours. My advice is be creative, but make sure you protect yourself by getting real world experience. When something finally breaks, you want folks to trust you with taking it to the finish line.

Rebecca: Where do you see new media going in the next several years? Do you think the internet will replace television as the primary way that people view content?

Amy: People are already watching the internet on their televisions. To me, it’s not one or the other. They’re merging and they’ll continue to do so until they’re one and the same.

Still, they’re just distribution outlets. Creators make content. My hope is that the merger puts the power back into our hands and we get to decide how an audience experiences something we’ve made rather than executives sitting behind desks.

Right now, though, the traditional business models don’t exist in this space. I had to hire lawyers to draft a contract, because this particular deal hadn’t been made before. There’s a network who pays a license fee, but they pay it to me. My production company is the studio, which means I maintain ownership and creative control. In that sense, it’s the best of all possible worlds. You get to make the show you want to make without interference. But that’s also where the risk comes in, since it’s my reputation on the line. If the show’s a failure, I have no one to blame but myself. It’s scary and exhilarating all at once, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Watch Caper on Geek & Sundry and Hulu!

Follow Amy’s adventures on Tumblr, and Twitter at @bergopolis!

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