Writers on the Web: Interview with Creator of Hit Web Series Wallflowers

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L-R; Ricky Dunlop (Ricky), Jolly Abraham (Jane), Tina Hart (Tina), Patch Darragh (Bryce), Gibson Frazier (Martin), Sarah Saltzberg (Daisy)

L-R; Ricky Dunlop (Ricky), Jolly Abraham (Jane), Tina Hart (Tina), Patch Darragh (Bryce), Gibson Frazier (Martin), Sarah Saltzberg (Daisy) Photo Credit: Zachary Halberd

Writer/Director Kieran Turner is no stranger to successfully producing his own work.

A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he wrote, directed, and produced the acclaimed documentary Jobriath, A.D., which played in over 50 festivals worldwide and was released theatrically earlier this year. His first feature film, 24 Nights, played at over 60 festivals, won seven audience awards, and was also picked up for distribution.

His latest project is the hit comedy web series WallflowersSet in the witty, cruelly comedic dating world of contemporary NYC, Wallflowers details the ensemble exploits of a tight knit group of sassy, creative Gen-X stragglers coping with the ecstasy and the agony of single life – as members of a Manhattan support group for the hopelessly single. The series was nominated for two Indie Series Awards this year and will be screened at ITV Fest later this month.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kieran about his experience as a writer and self-producer and the victories and challenges he’s encountered along the way.

Rebecca: What was the inspiration behind Wallflowers? Were any of the dating stories based on your own personal experience?

Kieran: I had written the original idea as a one hour pilot around 2000 and it was very different. I had just finished my first feature film, 24 Nights, which was on the festival circuit at the time and I was curious about trying to write for television. I’d done some specs of current shows and had this idea kicking around and wrote it.  I didn’t think it was very good, so into a drawer it went.

I was inspired to create the series by seeing a couple really well-produced web programs and being surprised and delighted by the level of quality and professionalism, and thinking: “Well, if this is what they’re looking like now, then I want to do that.”

I remembered the spec pilot, pulled it out and it was just as amateurish as I recalled, but I liked the idea. I also had a good decade of experience under my belt, both personal and professional, and in that time social media and internet communication really took over.  I was in my late 30s, still single, realizing I was part of this thinning group who hadn’t yet partnered up and I was being looked at as somewhat defective. Making the core members of this support group people in that age range who had somehow been left behind really solidified the concept for me.  In that vein, I can say it was based somewhat on feelings I was having if not experiences.  However, for our third season, which shoots this Fall, I’ve written about a few recent experiences I’ve had putting myself out there for “research.”

Rebecca: How was producing a web series different than your previous projects?

Kieran: Production-wise, it’s much like shooting an indie film because we shoot each season in one fell swoop.  If we didn’t, then scheduling would be worse than it already is and the episodes would be even more expensive.  It’s kind of the “Costco” way to shoot.  You buy in bulk and it saves you money.  Well, you shoot in bulk, getting rid of all your locations, etc. in a day or two for the whole season, and it saves you money.  But you’d better make sure you are really solid with your scripts before you decide to do that, otherwise, you spend money reshooting.

I’m very hands-on in everything that I do, mostly because I truly believe that no one is going to be as passionate, as dedicated, in short: no one will love your project the way that you do. And if you don’t make sure things get done, it’s likely they won’t.  There are always challenges with this type of project because you can’t sign the actors to an exclusive contract. You can’t build soundstages to house your sets. Even though everyone gets paid, they don’t get paid enough to secure them with no conflicts.  So you have to work around everyone’s schedules and sort of clench your ass muscles and hold your breath that you can make a schedule work. It’s the most terrifying jigsaw puzzle in the world, and it rarely ever holds together. It’s a lot of work, but (for me, at least) the reward is worth it.

Rebecca: What was the writing process like? Did you write each episode one at a time or did you write them together?

Kieran: I write the episodes for each season linearly.  I have an idea of where I want to end up with each character at the end of each season (some more fleshed out than others) but there is also a lot of discovery as I write.  I sometimes am surprised by what these characters say or do, which is weird, because I’m the one controlling that (on the page).  What I’ve really come to love about writing each season is getting to hear the voices of my actors say these lines in my head while I’m writing.  It actually helps inform the characters and helps me decide if the actions and words I’m giving them feel honest. It’s another layer of collaboration. (And the best part about it is I don’t have to schedule it!) I do wish I had more time to workshop the scripts and do more rewriting. I do some, but with screenplays, you have the luxury of sometimes tinkering for months or even years.

With web series, you’re usually writing (at least after the first season) because you’re close to shooting. And I always feel like the more you rewrite, the better it’s going to be, but I’ve had to let go of that to a degree.  I can say that the more you write for the same characters, the more you learn who they are, the less rewriting you need to do because knowing what feels right for the character gets to be a reflex. You just know how to do it.

The one challenge that I haven’t quite learned how to overcome is, in writing and shooting an entire season at one time, you don’t have the benefit of getting to see what is and is not working with a particular storyline or character.  A regular television show that does 22 episodes a season, they have the ability to not only watch these shows and evaluate them personally one or two at a time, but they get audience and fan feedback in enough time that, before the season is over, they can fix or change things.  Web series don’t really have that luxury.  There are a few things I would have lessened or changed over the past two years, but even more (especially in Season 2), there were some new additions that I would have liked to explore (and exploit) even more based both on personal preference and fan feedback.

I just think ongoing, serialized programming needs that space to breathe.  Even with shows that release an entire season at one time (I feel) suffer from this issue because they don’t have the benefit of hearing the chatter on the internet: this isn’t working, I don’t like her, I want more of them. So it’s a struggle. But I’m learning.

Rebecca: What kind of work did you do in pre-production to prepare for the shoot? Did you feel well-prepared or is there anything you would have done differently?

Kieran: You never have enough time for pre-production.  Never.  And I live in Los Angeles but shoot the show in NYC, so a lot of pre-pro is done remotely with crew who live locally.  I focus on finding and securing locations, putting together a schedule that will work for everyone. Budgeting, both time and money, and figuring out compromises (though those mostly happen on set).

Again, the worst part of all of it is the uncertainty that, because of the budget, things are going to fall through. I’m going through this right now with Season 3, basically stopping every 10 minutes throughout the day to breathe into a paper bag. And every season, things get larger, in episode count, in cast, in production value, deepening the characters, their interaction. It would be smart and logical to keep things simple. So I guess I’m neither. I’m not interested in repeating myself, artistically.  I haven’t yet found a way to make a living from web series, so if I can’t get that benefit from it, then I need to get something fulfilling.

And what feeds me is being able to challenge myself, grow the work and grow from it.  And I can only do that if I keep challenging myself and challenging the medium.  I don’t think you’re going to see too much out there on the web doing what Wallflowers is doing in terms of quality, in terms of moving pieces. And I want to keep escalating that. I want to keep breaking ground.

Rebecca: How long was your shoot, and what was it like? Anything go differently than you had planned, or better than expected?

Kieran: Season One’s shoot was six days for four episodes.  We had to reshoot one of the episodes because of a casting issue, so I wrote an additional episode to go along with it.  So Season One for five aired episodes (six filmed ones) was nine days.

We did 12 mini-sodes in between that we shot in one day, but it was all green screen. Season Two was seven episodes and we shot that in twelve days. Season Three is slated to be nine episodes and I estimate that will take eighteen days of shooting.

We have had to recast the main role of Bryce two times.  That is a much larger topic that I also don’t want to go too into detail about, but I will say it challenged me in several ways, got me to challenge the character, and also find funny, original ways to address the cast changes. (We did a parody of Dynasty and the two Steven Carringtons and shot it in two hours).  And I think we’ve gotten to a place with the character that I may not have taken it to had we not had those casting challenges.

In terms of things going better than planned, any time you get a group of people together, cast and crew, like we have, you are consistently blown away by the level of professionalism both in front of and behind the camera.  These people work their asses off, and perhaps one could say I lead by example, but I don’t know. I’ve been in situations where I’ve led and turned around to find everyone standing to the side, picking their noses.  I’m very lucky to have settled into a groove with a group that loves what we’re doing.

Rebecca: Did you encounter any difficult personalities on set, and if so, how did you handle it?

Kieran: My cast (and crew) have gone over and above the level of professionalism on set and have been a joy to work with. I’ve been very lucky.  I will say that because there isn’t as much rehearsal time as one would like, and you many times meet someone for the first time on set on the actual day of shooting, you need to keep in mind that people have different ways of working, different methods of getting to what they have to give.

Some people need a lot of discussion, some very little.  And I like to work very closely with the actors. So it’s a matter of learning how each actor’s personal method unfolds.  That can sometimes cause some friction, but you learn how much to give and how much to hold back.  You absolutely cannot apply a blanket method of direction with your actors, especially in something as character driven as Wallflowers.  Have I had a few ruffles with cast?  Sure.  But it’s pretty much all been in service of the work and I’d rather they care and that be the cause of friction than something like “OMG, what do you MEAN there’s no caviar on the craft services table!?”

Rebecca: Now that you have produced two seasons of your show, what lessons have you learned, and what would you do differently on a future web series, if anything?

Kieran: I always bite off more than I can chew, but I chew it anyway.  If I were to do another web series, besides figuring out how to profit from it, I would like to find something simpler to do that was still creatively challenging to me to do repeatedly.  It would be so amazing to go in to one locations and shoot for two weeks, but still stretch myself creatively and sustain that for 3-5 seasons. I think it’s very smart to, at least for your first go-round, to not go overboard in terms of things that will cost money and time. But in the same respect, web series are busting the genre open in many ways.  People want more than three actors in a white walled room badly improvising.  If you begin with a great script (or set of scripts) and good actors, I think you’ll still be forgiven a lot.

But really, most of the lessons you learn, the things you say, “Never again,” you fall in love a second, third, fourth time and you forget all the warnings. I know you want a serious answer, so yes, I have learned throughout the three seasons to schedule better. To make sure you keep those days to a workable maximum and not kill your crew.  I get better at it every season, but it’s really trial and error.

Rebecca: You’re distributed through Stage17.com.  Please tell us about Stage17, what services they offer filmmakers, and why they’re the right choice for your series.

Kieran: Stage17 came on board shortly after Season One aired.  They contacted me and we set up a meeting in NYC.  David Stoller and Ondine Landa-Abramson, who head the network, sat me down, told me about this wonderful new playground they were constructing and asked if I would like Wallflowers to be a part of it.  I love people who take chances, so I wanted to be a part of it right away.  They financed our second season and will do the same for our third.

I think initially they were attracted to the show because of my actors, who are all from Broadway and the NYC theater scene (which is one of the big reasons I chose to shoot in New York) and they were looking to create a space for theater people to create other work.  Their demographic was a particular person who frequented theater, but the shows didn’t have to be about theater (ours is not). They went out and found a half dozen or so shows that they developed from scratch, plus mine and one other that had recently finished up successful first seasons.

I’ve been able to retain creative freedom on my show, which, of course, is important to me, but I feel like they respect the work that’s being done.  They are certainly involved in every part of production.  They also have strong ties to the theater community, which is great, because I think that is one of our core groups of viewers, though simply because of the genre of the show, we branch out to larger, more varied demographics than other, more insular web series.

Rebecca: Why do you work in the web space? What inspires you to produce your own work?

Kieran: The mantra I learned quickly to adopt in this business is “Do not depend on the permission of others to make your dreams come true.”  If I had waited for a green light from a development exec, a production company, a movie studio, I’d have never gotten to do any of the things I’ve done.  I figure out how to make things happen for myself.  And I really believe that people who are creating for the internet more or less follow that same mantra.

The entertainment business is so insular, so unwelcoming, in every facet and on every level. If you are deeply passionate about the things you have to say and the work you want to create, then you have to take that extra leap and figure out how to make it happen.  The wonderful thing about the internet is it actually includes a distribution component.  People actually show up and watch what you do.  And boy, do they!  Now if we could only figure out how to monetize it better, we could be completely self-sufficient.  And I believe that day is coming. Until Hollywood crashes in and ruins it like they do everything else.

Watch Wallflowers on Stage 17 at www.stage17.tv/series/wallflowers!
Connect with Wallflowers on Facebook and Twitter!
Wallflowers_Poster-Final-1920 (1)
Rebecca Norris is a writer, producer, web enthusiast, and creator of the award-winning web series Split with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo.  

 

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