SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Creating a Web Series – ‘Devolve’

Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.

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Let me introduce you to Devolve. This is a web series I got involved with summer of 2014 and helped produce in late January, 2015. This is a crowded landscape and the last thing you need another how-to article on how YOU TOO can join the tens of thousands now making a web series! That’s not the endeavor here.

From Day 1 here at Script Magazine and at my blog at SCRIPT GODS I’ve talked about proactivity. About not letting the bastards tell you no. Who are the bastards? They’re the folks manning the front gate of the Hollywood Hotel—that gated community of cosmococcic beauty.

It’s the agent’s assistant at Jagoff Productions who sent you a form rejection to the logline/synopsis you spent a week writing; or the rejection notice from Script Pipedream screenwriting contest after the 20 year-old film student reader rejects your script without a single reason given (and PLEASE don’t believe it’s anyone more qualified reading the opus you spent 10 months writing–not in the early rounds of those contests. They charged you $60 bucks, what do you think they’re paying the reader to read it, a hundred?) It’s the bored “boutique” agency Junior rep yawning at your Pitchfest pitch no matter how many hours you practiced; or bogus producers pushing for free rewrites; or screenwriting experts with fabulous websites and non-existent IMDb profiles who make promises they can’t keep, taking your hope and time and $$$ without getting you one centimeter closer to actually getting your movie made. You know, the L.A. thang.

So how do you go about getting your script made without contacts or an agent or lots of money? You stir the pot. You make something else. You get a creative project out there and pray that you have more than an ounce of talent. You spend low money and make a web series. Try to nab tens of thousands of subscribers and monetize the thing. The cliché of “going viral” takes a hell of a lot of work but so what? You’re making something. You’re not waiting any more. You’re done with that. You’re taking it–NOW.

10530720_10153456118804111_5842838159669174041_nWe had a rooftop party in New York July 4th for the launch of episode one of Devolve. It was a risky strategy coming out that particular day but as of the writing of this article the first episode of Devolve has 30,000+ hits, not bad at all. You can find the first episode here. You can find the trailer here,The Facebook page, here.

If you’re interested making your own web series, it might be instructive to see the process of how Devolve came about. And so, without further ado…

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• BEGINNINGS

In March 2014 I gave a screenwriting seminar at Chicago Filmmakers. The lectures can be found at Screenwriting University and other places. So, at that lecture was Dan Arthurs, a Chicago guy who braved ten below winds to listen to–Christ help him–five hours of me talking about screenwriting. Something must have clicked because within the month I heard from him and his partner, David Schwartz. Dan was writing a web series called Devolve. They wanted me involved. Write–direct–produce. And they could actually pay me a little something. Well, bless my mercenary soul, you’ve got my attention!

Dan was wrapping up the first draft, which would consist of several episodes. The page count was still being defined but the ideal budget was set. While I won’t get into producer specifics, let’s just say the goal was to keep the project under $10,000 total. Without a locked script it was hard to get a firm grasp on what it would cost, so the first thing to do was nail the script down.
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The original story was this: A group of twenty-somethings stumble upon a Stoner God and decide to document him changing a man into an Ape, thus Devolving him and proving Divine Existence and making a s*&(load of money in the process. When they release the video of the miracle on YouTube, things go wrong. Complications ensue.

This was in May and the script was a work in progress. The early draft was set in a verdant field, placing God under a sort of Malick-style Tree Of Life. I remind the guys that shooting in Chicago (as was the plan) we had until end of October to reasonably ask a crew to spend 12 hours outdoors. David wondered about alternatives and yes, even though Pixar warns about never taking the first solution, the first thing that came to my mind was an arboretum. The guys liked it. If we couldn’t nail down the script and pre-production in time, we could go the arboretum route, shooting it into November or early December if necessary.

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• SUMMER

The pressures of my Columbia classes changed the dynamic come the summer months. I realized I would have to delegate some of my duties. It was a no-brainer to ask my Chat producing partner Boris Wexler to come in on this. Boris is 20X the producer I’ll ever be. Good Reader, if you learn anything from this article, learn to delegate responsibility. Boris would be lead producer. He would find us a Line Producer, draw up the Scheduling and Budgeting documents essential for production. Oh, and one other thing. Fred Miller, ace DP who shot Chat, would come in at a discount. Boris pitched Fred who said sure, why not. Fred would bring the camera package and make a few calls for G&E crew. Things were coming together.

But the script was still a question mark. Dan and I passed the script back and forth trying to find a solution. What story were we trying to tell? And could we tell the story with the budget we had? We moved from a third draft to a fourth. We were into August now and the October shoot date was looking unlikely. Then, an idea.

I had a friend, Lizz Leiser, a sketch comedy writer working with her crew at Serious Theater Collective in New York. Maybe she could take the script to a better place. Here’s another life lesson, Good Reader: Collaboration can be a bitch. It’s how you react to adversity that counts. No panic here. Get the script to Lizz, let’s see what she can do with it.

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• FALL– LIZZ TO THE RESCUE!

Obviously, by this time we had abandoned the Tree Of Life setting for God. Also the arboretum idea went by the wayside when we called the handful of local Chicago locations. Nobody was going to let a pack of twenty micro-budget web series types take over their lush gardens for a 12-hour shoot. So, now what? Boris had an idea. He knew from previous shoots that Reggie’s Rock Club was micro-budget friendly. A quick call, a friendly price quoted, and we had our space.

The beauty of Reggies? It has an upstairs bar that could double for the bar scenes. If you’re producing a web series on the cheap, try to limit company moves. Now with Reggies, we wouldn’t have to move, everything could be shot in one space. Now, what about that script?

We had reached the point of no return. We had already abandoned the pre-Christmas production dates. If we didn’t nail down the script soon, it would be impossible even to shoot in January.
Lizz and her writing partner, Ricardo Delgado, sent back their first draft in early October. General rejoicing commenced! David and Dan loved her new take on the material. Lizz and Ricardo immediately took over the writing duties, polishing the first draft into a second and third. Meanwhile Jacquelyn and I got to work on casting.

Through Breakdown Express we got well over 100 actors to audition for the seven roles. Because the script was still in flux it was unclear if we were going SAG or Non-SAG. Our goal was to find the best actors possible. Dan joined us to help shoot the auditions and we put up the auditions on Vimeo for Boris and David to see. The beauty of working in Chicago on a comedy web series is the obscene amount of actors who rolled in with Improv training. We were literally up to our necks in funny people. The narrowing down of call backs would soon follow.

• WINTER- JOHN MOSSMAN TO THE RESCUE!

I had already given up my producer duties to Boris on budgeting and scheduling matters, and to Line Producer Jacquelyn J. on the day to day stuff. New teaching responsibilities now made it clear I wouldn’t be able to follow up with my Director responsibilities either.

What did I say was the key, Good Reader? Knowing good people and delegating well. If I couldn’t see this through, who did I know in town who could? A handful of killer directing candidates were at the ready through Columbia College. I made a few calls and found out to our very great fortune that John Mossman was available. John is not just a long-time teacher at Columbia, he runs his own theater company (The Artistic Home) and is an actor himself! Always the fatal drawback for me, I never acted so it was hard to empathize with the acting process. I’m more sympathetic these days but in years past I’d gladly, like Samuel Beckett, just put my actors in urns, face them forward and direct them to READ MY FREAKIN’ LINES! Nope, not really the guy you want trying to help people be funny. Dan and Dave interviewed Mossman and before I could say get in the urn and read my lines!–he became the director of Devolve. I was the only one at this point to know what an upgrade that was.

• JANUARY: PRE-PRODUCTION WRAPS

Three days in late January emerged as our production dates. I was the Co-Producer who brought on Boris Wexler as lead Producer, John Mossman as Director, Lizz Leiser and her partner Ricardo as the writers. With Boris came killer Line Producer Jacquelyn Jamjoon and some of our Chat crew including Fred Miller, our DP, also Sarah Sharp, our Production Designer and Make up artist. With Fred came the G&E crew. With Mossman and some of my Columbia friends came great people for Script Supervisor, AD, 2ND AD, and PA’s. See how this works? Who do you know? All links in a chain, one following the next. It’s why your professional reputation is so important. If people enjoy working with you, they will again on the next project. Be a jerkoff and see how fast that gets around town.

So, the pre-production multi-tasking was popping. Director Mossman sat in on final auditions and quickly decided top choices for each role. Jacquelyn sent out offers. She also updated the Google docs for scheduling and worked with the AD on call sheets. A location scout was scheduled for Reggie’s Rock Bar so Production Designer Sharp and DP Fred Miller could get a sense of set and camera angles. Mossman and Miller worked up a shot list and overheads.

Meanwhile back in New York, Lizz and Ricardo were pounding on the script. These are primarily theater folk who, I think initially, were aghast at our absolute obsession over page count. Their first draft– 24 pages but not written on Final Draft so more like 30– was brilliant but had an unacceptable page count. The Boris equation for shooting pages per day is five comfortably, six or seven pages per day is pushing it, eight or more is Fantasyland– the chances highly likely you will NOT make your day. So yes, the script had to be pounded down. Subsequent drafts were 20 pages, then a last one at 17 pages, four episodes. We were now ready to shoot it.

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While I can’t include the Google Docs budget here or go into specific dollar detail, my advice to keeping your costs down is this– You can minimize fees for producer, writer, director, if all of them happen to be you. If you can’t wear every hat then you’ll need to find a combination of professionals working for less and students willing to work for the experience and credit. It’s absolutely doable and you shouldn’t feel intimidated. Are you connected in your film community? Take stock of who you can approach for each role. The goal: To pay the least humanly possible amount for quality people.

More specifically with Devolve, all six of our actors were SAG, so they received the $100 a day minimum (now $125!) Do you want your director to be a student filmmaker? Sure, you can find some promising people, but it’s risky. We went with a pro in John Mossman, who gave us a good rate. Who else HAS to get paid? Well, no one, if you have quality people that you know willing to throw you some charity. And if you don’t? The Producer and Line Producer have to get paid. There’s a SAG P&H fee that has to get paid, also insurance. The DP has to get paid (yes, you can get a promising student for near free here, but do you want to risk it?) Lights may need to be rented. Gaffer and grips are paid, but not a ton. The sound guys have to get paid. So do the art/makeup/hair departments. I know you didn’t forget that you have to feed everybody. And lastly, the contingency fund should any Acts Of God befall you during the shoot.

“Making your day” means you shoot everything you plan to shoot, in the time frame you plan to shoot it. Devolve made all three of its shooting days. The second day, in fact, we wrapped ahead of schedule. Getting every shot, multiple takes, ahead of time? Jacquelyn and I at one point remarked that it was too good to be true. Something was bound to mess up.

Day 3, last day of the shoot, the day I missed. I heard through the grapevine that the good luck dried up. Reggie’s Rock Bar isn’t a library. God Bless them, they are micro-budget friendly and anyone in Chicago looking for a club to shoot in has to look no further. Our first two days were scheduled from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. The stage area is partitioned off from the bar area with metal doors which can be closed. So the first two days– though a couple bar patrons may have rolled in around 2pm– with the exception of the perpetual Chicago EL train thunder, there were no sound issues. That changed Day 3 when our shooting scheduled changed to 3pm to 3 a.m. We were now competing with 10X the bar patrons and, apparently, a crazed Lottery guy spinning his Big Wheel and instigating the audience to all manner of noise not conducive to the pillow soft quiet we needed to shoot our final scenes. Being as we weren’t filming Chicago Fire the crowd didn’t much care about how their noise was impacting our dinky web series. We soldiered on best we could. This is why God created ADR. Then Mossman calls the Martini shot, and the thing is in the can.

Good Reader, go and do likewise!

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