I spent six days in Austin enjoying the 2015 SXSW Film program. Like any conference that’s also a nonstop party, this year’s lineup was inspiring, informative, and over too soon. Here are six takeaways that stuck with me.
“The cavalry is not coming.” – Mark Duplass
Sound depressing? Well, wait a second.
In his heartfelt keynote, writer-actor-director-producer Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Togetherness, The League) shared his step-by-step strategy for breaking into the movie business. It involves passion, practice, tenacity, and community. And if you do it well, you’ll craft a career in which you’re surrounded by people that you love to work with, telling singular stories that resonate deeply with your audience.
But he also cautioned that Hollywood will keep enticing you, and you’ll always think you’re one deal away from making it big… only for that latest deal to fall apart. And you’ll get frustrated, and you may even think about quitting, because here you are, doing your best work, and no one’s coming along to deliver you to the promised land of money and fame.
“When will the cavalry come for me?” you’ll ask yourself.
And then one day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll realize you are the cavalry.
Because when you take the time to hone your voice, and build your community, and establish your reputation, you’re developing the power to achieve your vision without needing someone else’s validation.
Kind of reconfigures your whole plan, doesn’t it?
Don’t confuse “no” with “never.”
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights) applied to UCLA film school… but she didn’t get in. She thought they made a mistake, so she wrote a letter and made her case for admission.
She got in.
Later, she applied for a job on the sitcom A Different World… but didn’t get hired. When the guy who was hired instead of her didn’t pan out, she got back in touch with the powers that be and called and called and called and called them until they finally gave her a shot. She took it, and it launched her career.
The lesson? Just because one door closes, that doesn’t mean it’s locked.
“Walk through the doors that open for you.” – Christine Vachon
Likewise, not every path to success is a straight line from A to B.
“If you want to work in narrative film, and someone offers you a job in documentary, take it.” That’s the advice of producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Velvet Goldmine), who knows a thing or two about launching the careers of outsider voices.
So why take a seemingly counter-intuitive opportunity? Because once you’re “in,” your network expands and you’ll have more options — and you never know where those new options will lead. But if you don’t take that chance, you stay right where you are, waiting for the “perfect” opportunity… which may never come.
Your idea of “success” may be different from the next person’s.
High Maintenance creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld turned their DIY series into a critical hit. Vimeo was so impressed, they made the show their first flagship series. And yet, because Ben is a working actor, his fans wonder if his dedication to the series is holding him back from “bigger things.”
“We love the people we make this show with so much, we always say we want to go off and start a commune with them.” That’s Sinclair’s summary of the working conditions on High Maintenance, a labor of love that he and Blichfeld have complete creative control over.
“Honestly,” says Sinclair, “unless I get a script that’s amazing, why would I spend time doing another project when I could be doing what I love?”
In other words: if you’re chasing a goal, make sure it’s one you want to reach.
Seek out different perspectives.
Beau Willimon, the showrunner for Netflix’s House of Cards, was asked about the benefits of having a diverse writer’s room. He was quick to clarify that “diversity” isn’t about checking boxes; it’s about finding authentic voices with a variety of POVs.
“I look for people who can write stories I wouldn’t even be capable of imagining,” Willimon says. “And that’s because their backgrounds and their visions are so different from mine.”
Yes, the quality of the work is what ultimately matters. But the more memorable your individual voice becomes, the more likely you are to be heard.
“Never stop learning.” – RZA
It’s been a long and varied career for RZA, whose love of rap music and martial arts films inspired him to found the legendary Wu-Tang Clan… which led to him composing film scores for Jim Jarmusch… which introduced him to Quentin Tarantino… which inspired him to become a director himself.
During the Q&A from his keynote, a fan asked him, “Given all your various influences, what’s next for you?”
“I’m studying Woody Allen,” said RZA.
The audience burst out laughing, but RZA was serious.
“Always be learning from genres and sources that have nothing to do with what you’re interested in, because you never know what you might learn that you can use. If you want to make a movie about New York gangs, go watch some French films. I just had my daughter watch Yentl. That’s a Barbra Streisand movie. But there’s something in there that she can use.”
In September of 2003, before the launch of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or MySpace — before you could watch a video on your iPod, much less on your cell phone — the first episode of a brand new, so-called “web series” was uploaded to the Internet.
The writer-director of this web series had no prior experience. The actors were unpaid students and amateurs. The locations were borrowed, the equipment was borrowed, and all of the music was borrowed from the labels who loaned it. The show was an experiment, created simply to see if it could be done — “it” being the ongoing production of a dramedy, a sitcom structured like a soap opera, invented from scratch and made available solely online by dreamers who had free time, no obligations, and nothing to lose.
The writer-director was me, and the show was called Something to Be Desired. It ran for six years, generated over a hundred episodes, accumulated hundreds of thousands of views, and was nominated for a 2008 Yahoo! Video Award for Best Web Series.
Then, in 2009, it ended.
Ten years after that first episode was uploaded to the Internet, here’s a look back at the long, strange road that led me from a dead end future to becoming the creator of the Internet’s longest-running sitcom.
It’s August of 1995 and all of my friends are leaving for college, but I’m not going anywhere. As a high school dropout, I don’t even have my GED. I’m 18 years old, unemployed, and living in my grandfather’s house in Erie, Pennsylvania, sleeping in the same bedroom my dad grew up in. There’s a picture of him receiving his first Holy Communion hanging on the opposite wall from my bed. I look exactly like him.
I make a living doing a small amount of work for my dad’s import business, and I spend what little money I do make on three things: food, music, and the long distance bills I rack up every month making phone calls to girls I keep meeting in a chatroom on this newfound distraction called the Internet.
My best friend, Tom, is still in town, so we hang out pretty much every day. He goes to Penn State’s Erie campus, which has a computer lab. That’s where we go to get online. Because Tom is a student with an ID, they let him in, and because I’m with him, they let me in too. I’m there with him so often that the lab monitors all assume I’m a student, so I’m never questioned.
I spend hours every day in that computer lab chatting with complete strangers from other colleges who’ve all met on a Telnet site called The Chatting Zone (TCZ), a MUD run by some bloke from England. Our friend Steve, who’d left Erie to attend Case Western Reserve the previous summer, told us about it. He said it was a free way to keep in touch, since long distance phone calls were expensive. If he saw my phone bills from that winter, where I’d spent hours talking to girls with handles like Shugar and Wild Child, he might have rethought pitching the TCZ as an affordable solution.
One day, Tom shows me something else we can do with these computers: it’s called Yahoo.
It’s 1996, and I’m a deejay on a college radio station, but I’m not enrolled there and I’m not getting paid.
Erie is a small city, maybe 100,000 people. It fills up that little box on top of Pennsylvania’s rectangle, sandwiched between Cleveland and Buffalo. It’s a friendly city of mostly Polish, Slavic, and Italian-Americans, and its three most popular radio stations play oldies, alternative, and classic rock.
And then there’s Energy FM 90.
Gannon University, a Catholic college in downtown Erie, has a radio station that no one pays attention to in 1996, including most of the school’s faculty and staff. On the weekends, the tiny, windowless station in the cramped basement of the Zurn Science center is home to a variety of “ethnic” shows hosted by local community volunteers, from Super Soul Saturday to the Sunday Polka Party. But during the week, WERG plays all the underground rock, punk, and metal it can squeeze into its limited airtime, hosted by third shift refugees and wayward Communications majors. And while it’s a low frequency on the radio dial, it piggybacks off the tower of the largest radio station in town, which means its signal is carried from the Ohio border to the New York border and all the way across the lake to Ontario.
In a city that epitomizes middle-American normality, Energy FM 90 is my one source for strange, quirky sounds being played by strange, quirky deejays.
When summer comes, there aren’t enough interested students to keep the station running, so they staff it with community volunteers. Two of them are named Nick Steele and The Hotbod, and they happen to be on the air every morning when I wake up. I become a frequent listener, then a frequent requester. One day, I call to make my usual request (“Over and Out” by Drill), and Nick Steele asks me a question. He says he’s getting tired of being a deejay every morning, and asks me if I want to take over his Thursday show. I say sure, because the offer is so unexpected that I can’t think of anything else to say. I tell him I’ve never operated a board before. He says it’s easy. I tell him my best friend Tom is a Communications major who took a radio class, and I’d feel more comfortable with a more experienced partner in the booth. He says that’s fine. What I don’t immediately realize is that it really doesn’t matter what Nick Steele says, because when Tom and I meet him, we find out that he and The Hotbod are still in high school. Clearly, Gannon University cares not at all about who has access to their transmitter, which broadcasts at 89.7 on Erie’s FM dial, in the middle of 1996.
That summer, Mayor McCheese (me) and Locobone (Tom) take to the air on Gannon’s WERG Erie, Energy FM 90. We’re friendly, competent, and have a skewed sense of humor. (One show involved Locobone wandering downtown Erie in a bathrobe, carrying a vacuum cleaner, and calling in from a payphone as people tried to find him and make him eat an apple because he’d never had one before. All of this, amazingly, is true; his first-ever bite into a piece of fruit was broadcast live.)
We’re also willing to pick up as many shifts as the station will let us have, which is basically as many as we want. We do well enough that Tom and I are allowed to stick around throughout the following school year and help train the incoming Communications freshmen who have an interest in radio, despite him being a student at a rival college and me being a grifter.
We befriend a few of these freshmen, and I start seeing what actual college life is like. When they ask me why I don’t have my GED yet at the age of 19, I start running out of excuses. I eventually make up my mind to change my trajectory. Telling no one, I obtain my GED, get a haircut, and get hired at Blockbuster. I start asking how much tuition at Gannon costs. I start thinking about my future.
At the same time, I’m also co-hosting the WERG morning show from 6 AM to 9 AM four days a week, going home to sleep for a few hours, going to my night shift at Blockbuster, and then coming home to crash for a few hours before I do it all again. It’s hell on paper, but it’s wonderful in action. Thanks to our collective antics, WERG is voted the #2 station in the city in the free paper’s reader poll that year. Suddenly, the school notices they actually DO have a radio station. Student engagement jumps, as does listenership. When the deejays meet up on Friday nights at Eat ‘N Park, we’re hailed as minor local celebrities. We start to develop egos. I start dating one of my fellow deejays. It ends badly, but for a good reason.
One day she sits me down and says we’re not going anywhere, and the reason we’re not going anywhere is because I’m not going anywhere. I tell her I’ll look into colleges, but because I want to work in arts and entertainment, it’s unlikely that I’d actually go to one of the colleges in Erie. She tells me that’s fine. I say that means we’ll probably break up. She says that’s fine too.
A few days later, while her younger sister is reading the names of in-state schools out loud from her college application guidebook, she mentions one that actually sounds interesting to me. I ask her to repeat it. “The Art Institute of Pittsburgh,” she says.
A few months later, I’m enrolled there.
I always drew and wrote when I was growing up, and my parents presumed I’d become an artist one day. I’d also I’d recently developed an interest in filmmaking, due to a series of home movies we’d made with Steve’s camcorder during the last few summer breaks. I wasn’t sure which major I should pursue, but my recent ex had seen those films we’d made and she told me I had no future in filmmaking, so she urged me to select a major I could rely on for a steady income. I called AIP and asked about their Graphic Design program, but my admissions rep instead shepherded me toward a brand new major that he thought I’d be perfect for (and for which he had an enrollment quota to meet): Computer Animation and Multimedia.
Toy Story had just opened the previous year, and computer animation was suddenly all the rage. With this degree, he assured me, I could work in Hollywood, video games, TV, or any other field I wanted to pursue when I graduated — even designing album covers(!). I signed up. It was an Associate’s Degree program. I’d be out in two years with a degree that could get me any job I wanted, and a hodge podge of drawing, animation, programming, and audio and video production skills that would be useful no matter where I went.
I moved to Pittsburgh for a two year degree. I ended up staying for the next 12 years.
AIP turns out to be a blast, and I meet some incredibly talented people who push me to keep doing my best work. We’re a competitive, supportive bunch — we refer to it as co-opetition — and while I can hang with them artistically, my heart isn’t in the computer side of Computer Animation the way theirs are. I’m less interested in animating splines and booleans and minimizing mesh face counts. I want to tell stories. While everyone else is trying to nail their 3-D reel, I’m obsessing over my 2-D animation, despite our job placement office having found no jobs for 2-D animators that I can recall.
At the same time, my mandatory video editing course reminds me how much I really do enjoy video production. When we’re assigned a final project, I take it upon myself to write, direct, film, and edit a short called “Maybe It’s Just the Beer Talking.” We film in a real bar. Three of the actors are underage, but drinking real liquor. None of them have any acting experience. My classmate and future roommate Ben Bratt botches enough of his lines that the outtake reel is almost longer than the short itself. And yet, despite all of this, I’m hooked on the experience of telling a story with video.
I ask the head of our department if I can take more video courses as electives. He bends the rules, and I end up graduating with a subpar 3-D reel, a decent 2-D reel, and a 40 minute movie I wrote and shot in a month called “Milk & Honey.” It’s a story about a guy who realizes everybody has a plan after college except him, so he scrambles to figure things out.
It’s 1999, and I don’t have a job yet, but I do have this crazy idea.
My college graduation is immediately followed by a series of comedic tragedies, including a month where I pay my rent by selling my baseball card collection and a night where my car is totaled by a sixteen year-old girl who ran a blinking red light. So while I have no money, no car, and no job, I also have no obligations, which means I can stay out until 3 AM drinking coffee in diners with my friend Scott who hasn’t graduated yet.
One night we’re discussing a screenplay I’d written for a low-budget horror movie, which turns into a discussion of movies, which turns into a discussion of the difference between movies and TV: in a series, you can see the characters evolve over time. The conflict doesn’t have to be forced into a neat little ninety minute package; it can expand. We start debating what makes a good movie or a good TV show. Of course we’re both opinionated; we went to art school, didn’t we?
And that’s when I start getting an idea for a different story altogether.
It’s more like a vignette, really, about a bunch of friends sitting in a cafe, arguing about life and relationships. A story about people like us, just out of college or just about to graduate, who have no idea what they’re going to do next, but at least they’re all doing it together. Is it a movie? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a short film. We cobble together a loose plotline, a convoluted tale of love and revenge that involves an exploding lawn jockey. It’s amusing, and we start thinking of ways we could film it…
… but I keep asking myself, “Sure… but what happens next?”
And that’s when I realize this isn’t just a story; this could be a series.
And that’s a problem, because you can’t just make your own TV series.
Well, maybe you could. Maybe something like Clerks, but episodic. But where? A film festival wouldn’t show a serialized story, and there’s no TV channel for DIY fiction.
Could you do a video series online?
I call my friend Steve, who by now is an engineer at GE who knows far more about technology than I do. He tells me why my idea won’t work: broadband. In 1999, not enough homes have an Internet connection fast enough to allow them to watch video. (This was the era of Napster, after all, when downloading a 4 megabyte song in 20 minutes was worth calling your friends over to watch.) If we produced video for the Internet, we’d be broadcasting to an incredibly small audience, and no one wants to watch video on their computers anyway.
It’s an interesting idea, he admits, but it isn’t worth it.
It’s 2002, and I’m finally employed.
There was a glut of animation talent graduating in 1999, and not many students from our AIP class had found work in our chosen field. Some, like Ben, went back to school to get a Bachelor’s Degree. Others took jobs in tangential fields like packaging design or medical illustration. I took a retail job at Media Play.
One day, I came home to a message on my answering machine from AIP’s job placement office. Another AIP alum was in charge of production at a local multimedia company, and he’d been looking for someone with skills in animation and video production. It turns out I was the only grad with those two skills sets. Was I interested in a job producing safety training videos for the steel industry? A better question would have been, Did I want to pay my rent and still have money left over for food? Of course I did.
I took the job. I wound up serving as the Video Producer at Multimedia Training Systems for five years. During that time, I spent 40+ hours a week editing OSHA-compliant fall prevention videos and accident recreations of men who’d lost limbs in heavy machinery. It didn’t take long before I sorely needed a creative outlet.
My boss, Shawn, was a year younger than me but he’d graduated a year ahead of me. He was also a drummer in a punk band, and he was tired of me talking about wanting to make a movie but never doing it. One day, he told me his band was headlining a Halloween show and they wanted to show a short movie before they played. Would I make them a movie?
I said sure.
Now I just needed a story and a cast.
My friend Erica (who used to date my roommate Ben) was managing the cafe in a Barnes & Noble, and she mentioned that one of her new baristas was an actress at Point Park college. She introduced us and we hit it off. The girl’s name was Lacey Fleming.
Erica’s new boyfriend Dan Stripp and I also got along well, so I asked him if he’d like to act in something I was going to film. He’d never acted before, but he was willing to give it a shot. He and Erica volunteered their apartment, which was the second floor of a somewhat gothic house, as the film’s location. With Dan, Lacey, and a set, I came up with a five minute story of suspicion and sexual repression that also involved a knife. I called it “Killing Time.”
We filmed it. I edited it. We screened it. People liked it.
At the screening, Lacey looked around for me but couldn’t find me. She found me in the lobby, where I had retreated because I realized I hate watching my own work in a room filled with strangers. She assured me that some people in the audience really liked it, and one of them was her friend and fellow actor, Will Guffey. She started to introduce us, but we both stopped her because we already knew each other; we’d worked together at Media Play, but in different departments. I’d been the assistant lead in the book section; Will was a film junkie.
Will said he really liked what we’d done, and he told me he’d be up for whatever it was that we were going to do next. Then he and Lacey asked me if I was going to do anything next.
And that’s when I finally said, “Well, I have this idea…”
It’s 2003, and I’m in a house in Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington neighborhood, surrounded by student actors.
The top half of the house is Lacey’s apartment. We had dated briefly after we shot Killing Time, and while it ended badly, we were still friends. Will was also there, and he’d invited some of their fellow classmates to read through a rough draft of my harebrained idea.
As a lifelong fan of TV and comics, I’d always been frustrated by how little characters would change over time. My grandiose vision was to create a show that could run for thirty years, in which the original characters would age, get married, have kids, and eventually hand the story over to a whole new generation. But it had to start somewhere, so I’d created a handful of characters to get the ball rolling.
The actors performed the script aloud. They liked it. It was wordy, and it didn’t quite work, but there was something there. They were interested in working with me on it. And they were also interested in doing something that hadn’t been done before: creating a serialized story on the Internet, where we could post an episode and get immediate feedback from our audience. Additionally, after years of performing traditional plays in school, I think they were interested in creating characters that they could build from the ground up and “own” indefinitely.
In what would become an unintentionally recurring theme over the years, everyone in the room that day wound up getting cast.
The male roles were the easy part. I’d written three competing male leads, each representing a different aspect of my own personality. Jack Boyd was the passive intellectual, Dean Dockerty was the insecure womanizer, and Leo Straub was the manipulative cynic. I had written Jack with Dan Stripp in mind, and Will Guffey had the flamboyant theatricality that would make Leo work. The role of Dean went to Will’s former roommate Shaun Hall, whom I’d been impressed by when I’d seen him act in a previous Point Park production.
The girls, on the other hand, were trickier.
In addition to Lacey, Will had also invited two other actresses to that reading: Mia La Monica, who was just 17 at the time and knew Will because they’d gone through the same high school drama program, and Ann Turiano, who was 19, smart, and quiet. While the other actors were eager to offer their opinions and talk at length about the story, Ann kept to herself, but her instincts in the read through were sharp. I knew she was talented, but I just wasn’t sure how to include her in the story. And yet, I also knew it was foolish to turn away talent willing to work for free, so I set about finding a way to work her into the ensemble.
In my original drafts, there were only two clearly defined female characters: Jack’s ex-girlfriend Alison, and a sardonic barista named Dierdre. But none of the girls in the room that day was right for Alison, and I hadn’t found a coffee shop to film in yet, so Dierdre was in danger of being omitted from the story entirely. That meant I had three actresses and no specific roles.
Based on their chemistry during the read-through, Lacey was cast as Dierdre, who was conceived of as the one girl that Dean can never have. Mia was cast as Dean’s long-suffering girlfriend Marjorie. And Ann wound up being written in as Jack Boyd’s little sister, Caroline. Because we’d be heading into filming without a cafe location, Dierdre was reimagined not as a barista but as Caroline’s roommate, so we could keep the dialogue from her first meeting with Dean. (“You’re Dean Dockerty, aren’t you? You’re a lot more charming on the radio.”)
Casting Alison turned out to be harder than expected. We finally found her in Natalie Nicolian, a classmate of Will’s with limited acting experience, but she had “the right look.” In the world of free web video, casting actors with little or no experience would become one of my core survival habits.
We also didn’t have our eighth character locked down yet. Alison’s new boyfriend in the script, Ray King, was the boss at the struggling radio station where Jack once worked, and where Dean did now. He was as close to a villain as the show would have, given my conceit that there are no such things as villains in this story, just people who perpetually complicate each other’s lives. Our first two attempts to cast the role fell through, so in a pinch, I asked my ex-roommate Ben Bratt to play Ray. Given the potential awkwardness of Ben and Dan having to play men who had each dated the fictional same woman (considering they had actually both dated the same woman in real life), Ben said he would do it if no one else was able to. When no one else could, Dan and Ben, with no real experience, wound up playing Jack and Ray for two seasons.
Our last hiccup? The radio station itself.
We thought we’d be able to film in Point Park’s radio station, but that idea was nixed by the school just as filming began. Scrambling to find a backup location, I delayed the onscreen introduction of the radio station until the show’s second episode… then the third… Finally, in what may be the result of a completely misunderstood phone call, I reached one of the decision makers at WQED, Pittsburgh’s classical radio station, and told them we were filming a show about a struggling radio station. The voice on the phone invited us to come down and see if their station would meet our needs. Optimistic, my boss and I took a lunch break and wound up getting a full tour of the facility, including the TV studio where they’d filmed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “Would this do?”
We said yes.
We were given free run of the station after hours, including any incidental areas like foyers and commissaries, as long as we weren’t interrupting normal station business.
To this day, we remain convinced that the powers that be at WQED thought we were shooting a student film that would be finished in a few days. Instead, we stayed for three years.
With all the pieces in place, we filmed the first five episodes of the show.
The plot was simple: in the pilot, Jack Boyd — a formerly popular overnight deejay on a tiny radio station called WANT 89.9 FM — returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh to see his little sister Caroline graduate from college. His return is heralded by his old friends and rivals Leo and Dean, but he’s immediately pulled back into the same in-fighting and chicanery he thought he’d escaped when he moved away to his “dream job” in Chicago. What he has trouble admitting is that his dream job is completely unsatisfying, and he has no idea what he’s doing with his life, but he’s perceived as a success and a savior by his old friends — especially Alison, who sees what Ray has planned for the radio station that brought them all together and hopes Jack can intervene to save WANT from being run into the ground. And, in what would become a hallmark of the series, when push comes to shove, Jack… does nothing. In fact, he leaves town immediately after Caroline’s graduation, so eager to flee from his old life that he can’t even be bothered to attend the family’s celebration. Despite this, Caroline — with her brand new and oft-derided degree in English — overhears her mother telling her father how much she wishes Caroline would be more like Jack. And instead of confronting her mom, Caroline… does nothing either. She just internalizes her frustration and carries on.
The turn comes when Jack stops the cab he’s taking to the Greyhound station and sneaks into the building that houses WANT. In an earlier episode, Dean tells Jack that Ray has replaced Jack’s old overnight time slot with a computerized satellite feed, so Jack breaks into the booth, turns the feed off, and broadcasts his own impromptu soliloquy to whomever’s listening. Why? Because he can. Because he needs to. Because it’s what he used to do years ago, when he was the man they all still think he is now: a guy who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Except this time, he tells them what he hasn’t been able to tell anyone else: that you grow up following a curriculum and earning accolades, and then when you finally graduate college, you realize that there is no syllabus for the rest of your life, and you find out that sometimes real life leaves a little… something to be desired.
Jack’s speech is filmed in such a way that he seems to be speaking to Caroline, telling her what he knows he should have said in person, but he’s also speaking to complete strangers we’ve never seen before and never will again — people who just happened to be listening to the radio, who stumbled across a momentary bit of wisdom. Really, he’s speaking to us, the audience. And, ultimately, he’s talking to himself, alone in a room, rationalizing his own life before he runs away from it once again.
Something to Be Desired debuted in September of 2003. I had an old URL, forgingmag.com, that I wasn’t doing anything with, so my boss at MTS built me a framework and uploaded the episodes for me as they were completed. YouTube was still more than a year away, so we were uploading 100 Meg WMV files and expecting people to watch them on a dial-up connection.
I would tell people what STBD was and they would say, “Oh, you make a show on the Internet? Do you want it to be on public access someday?” They weren’t kidding; they though public access TV was a step up from putting video online. They meant it as a compliment.
The episodes varied in length from ten to twenty minutes, built around LOTS of dialogue and soundtracked exposition. I had a side gig as a music reviewer for an online zine, so I contacted the labels from some of the CDs I liked and obtained written permission to use their music in the series, with the expectation of payment if the show ever went to DVD. (This is one reason the show has never gone to DVD.)
Eventually the show got its own URL, somethingtobedesired.com (which was amazingly not already taken in 2003), and my boss built me a video upload system that could best be described as “YouTube for one.” (Ironically, YouTube and Blip TV would both be online within two years; yet another case of us spending a lot of time, effort and money producing something that would have been a hell of a lot easier if we’d just waited.)
Our initial audience obviously wasn’t very large, but they were interested. Those who connected with the show did so because they said the characters felt real and relatable. (“Everyone knows a Leo,” someone once told me.) The cast was also interested in continuing the show for another season. They’d started playing with these characters, and they wanted to know what happened next, too.
The only problem was that Dan and his wife Erica had a baby now*, and they were planning to move across the state. If we did keep going, could STBD survive without its main character?
The answer, as we proved for six seasons, was yes.
Over the next six years, we produced six seasons of Something to Be Desired amid a reliable recipe of annual cast departures, lost locations, rushed production and zero budget. Dan Stripp (Jack) and Ben Bratt (Ray) left after season two, so we shifted the focus to Dean and Caroline, who’d become Dean’s girlfriend on the show.
By 2005 I had begun dating Ann Turiano (Caroline), and we did our best to keep our personal relationship from interfering with the show. When Ann was accepted to grad school in London that summer, we rushed to shoot all of her scenes out of order. That created a continuity nightmare as I spent the rest of the winter shooting the rest of the series in order, working around the remaining cast’s availability and editing the show in a barely-heated apartment. I had quit MTS and I was supposed to be freelancing as a videographer, but I was really spending all my time on the series.
By June of 2006 I was broke and living off credit cards, but still producing STBD. Shaun Hall (Dean) had also left the show to move to Virginia, which meant Dean would have to be written out next. At this point, I seriously considered ending the show so I could repair my career and move on with my life, but three things stopped me.
First, I got an email from a New York City actor who’d just moved to town. He’d been performing in touring productions of musicals for years, and now he and his wife had moved back to Pittsburgh, where her family was from, so they could try to start a family of their own. After a few months his creative urges had become desperate, so he’d been scouring the Internet looking for a local project he could get involved with. He stumbled across STBD and he really liked it. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. His name was Erik Schark.
Second, Ann returned from London and helped me get my career and finances in order, and she also agreed to return to STBD. Without Jack or Dean, the show — if it continued — would have to shift its focus once again, and that meant Caroline and Dierdre could become the new leads.
And third, I just didn’t want it to end.
Despite all the trouble of juggling schedules, equipment, batteries, tapes, hard drive space, all-night editing binges followed by hours of restless sleep, and a complete lack of business acumen or forward momentum, I still really really really wanted the show to succeed. It was my baby, and I just wasn’t ready to give up on it, even if it hadn’t quite taken the world by storm the way I’d naively thought it would when we first began. And even though the story had technically wrapped up when Caroline and Dean filmed their last episode together in the season three finale, I went back to my original purpose for the show: “Sure, but what happens next?”
I made my mind up to keep going.
All I needed now was a new story.
In June of 2006, I organized a casting call.**
While the show still had Caroline, Dierdre, Leo, and a few other characters to rely on, it was a messy jumble of loose ends and unsatisfied conflicts due to other cast departures. I knew I could string a story together from the pieces I had left, but I also hoped I could take the story in a new direction by adding one or two new cast members.
Instead, we added almost a dozen.
In the space of just two hours, I saw auditions from Erik Schark (Rich Mathis), Courtney Jenkins (Tabitha), Jenn Koegler (Liz), Ryan Ben (Tim), Josh Hansen (Brent), Teresa Trich (Gloria), and several other actors who would land recurring roles on STBD. At other casting calls later in the year, Rick Hertzig (Glenn), Hans Rosemond (Lloyd), and Trent Wolfred (Pryce) were also added to the show. I was blown away by the amount of talent I suddenly had at my disposal, and my gears started turning, finding ways to work as many of these new faces into the show as possible.
Clearly, this was going to be bigger than a story about a tiny radio station. It was going to be a story about Pittsburgh.
I started phasing out the radio station and free paper where Caroline and Leo had been working so I could make room for the new characters. Caroline found a new job at a chintzy publisher called Vanity Press, run by the cartoonishly egomaniacal Rich Mathis, while Dierdre finally took that fateful job as a barista in a cafe called Affogato. In reality, Affogato was the same Pittsburgh cafe I’d had in mind when I first conceived of STBD. It had recently come under new ownership, and the girl who bought it was open to the idea of us filming there on evenings and weekends.
The good news was that we now had new characters and new storylines. But we also had a tonal shift, away from the introspective humor of the first three seasons and toward a broader, more plot-driven approach. Not everyone liked the change or the ballooning cast size, but it did give us a chance to film in more Pittsburgh locations than we had previously, and that in turn exposed us to more and more viewers. The show was evolving.
Unfortunately, all these changes were starting to get complicated to manage.
One night Crystalann Jones, who played Vanity Press’s buxom receptionist Hailey, showed up for a shoot in what essentially amounted to a bustier. She arrived early at WQED, the fictional home of both WANT and Vanity Press, and went to the executive boardroom where we were intending to film that evening. Hearing voices inside, she mistakenly thought she was late to the shoot, so she opened the door and walked in on an executive board meeting in her corset. Heads turned; jaws dropped.
Needless to say, we were informed that evening would be our last evening of filming in WQED. So if you ever wondered why WANT was dropped from the STBD storyline so abruptly — or why so many Vanity Press meetings happened over lunch in other restaurants that season — that’s why.
And yet, through it all, we just kept filming.
Handheld shots had become the norm that season, and the series acquired a faster, more visceral look, so we’d film scenes as quickly as we could. We’d lose one location and pick up another. Borrowed homes, outdoor cafes, city parks, art gallery openings — we filmed in them all, guerrilla style. When we needed a new home for Vanity Press, a friend who worked in AIP’s PR department let us film there after hours. Whatever we needed, we found a way to get, and whatever was offered to us, we found a way to use.
The season finale culminated in Caroline, Dierdre, and Glenn crashing a lavish wedding in the Pittsburgh Aquarium. A real life fan of the show was getting married there, and he invited us to film our finale during his actual reception as long as we didn’t get in the way. Somehow we pulled it off. And that individual success mirrored the success of the show: growing ever more complex, yet remaining just under the radar.
And then, one day, Yahoo noticed us.
In 2005, two things had happened that forever changed how video worked.
First, YouTube debuted in February.
Then, in October, the iPod became video-enabled.
Just a few years before that, people had asked us why we’d ever want to put video on the Internet. But by January of 2006, Steve Jobs was showing the Tiki Bar TV podcast onstage at an Apple event, and articles like “Is the Web the New Hollywood?” started popping up all over. For a cast that had been dedicating years of their lives to a free Internet show, our answer was, “We sure hope so!”
iTunes allowed video podcasts to be listed in its store, so STBD went there. By the time our fifth season debuted in 2007, iTunes was our audience’s primary way to watch the show. Fans would tell us they were letting episodes backlog so they could binge on them all at once.
Other players joined the web video distribution game, including Yahoo, who built themed channels to compete with YouTube and Google. In 2007, STBD started getting frontpaged by Yahoo! Video whenever a new episode would come out. YouTube followed suit in 2008, going so far as to ask us to change our listed category from Comedy to Entertainment because the employee who hand-picked the Entertainment page videos liked us.
Suddenly, instead of getting a few thousand views per episode, we were getting upwards of 30,000. Things started to feel like they were taking off. Famous Pittsburghers were doing cameos, including Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, who became a foil for Rich Mathis’s political plans. And when actress Jenn Koegler had to be written out because she was moving to Australia, her character, Liz, died in a plane crash during a cut-rate vacation from Vanity Press; her death was reported on the show by actual Pittsburgh TV reporter Bob Mayo, filmed live at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Our increased exposure was starting to pay off.
In 2008, we were nominated for a Yahoo! Video Award for Best Web Series.
The finalists were all hand-picked by Yahoo! employees, but the voting was done by the general public. We marshaled a decent showing, coming in third behind the admittedly fine productions Break a Leg and The Guild, who had built larger niche audiences in a shorter amount of time.
We may not have won that particular award, but even being nominated had felt like we’d finally arrived. The world of web video was starting to attract sponsors, and we had a feeling we might be able to tap into that pie if we could keep boosting our viewership while maintaining our relative quality. Our episodes from season five had garnered tens of thousands of YouTube views, and our return was being written up in the Pittsburgh newspapers. We were feeling good as we headed into season six.
Sure, we were losing a few cast members, but that was nothing new. By now I’d grown used to reloading the cast every year as actors inevitably graduated, got married or pregnant, moved away, or simply opted out of continuing their roles. But Caroline, Dierdre, Leo, Rich, Tabitha, Glenn, and others were still there to keep the engine running, and we’d just added a few new faces to the cafe to make up for the pending departure of Affogato veterans Tim and Brent. If I’d learned anything in six years, it was that the show could survive the loss of any character.
What I didn’t count on was having to replace myself.
In May of 2009, Ann got an offer for a new job in Baltimore. The money was significantly better. There wasn’t much to discuss. When she accepted, she was given six weeks to pack up and move.
By then we had been dating for four years and living together for three, and it was a given that I would go to Baltimore with her. And that meant STBD had come to an end.
We hadn’t planned on ending the series, so the final episodes don’t feel like the final episodes. They’re the end of Tim’s and Brent’s storylines, but everything else — Caroline dating Pryce, Dierdre beguiling Glenn, Leo making up his own autobiography, and Dean’s unexpected return — all feels like a loose end that’ll be picked up again in season seven… except there is no season seven.
It just ends.
The cast still wanted the show to go on, but obviously there was no way to do that with me in Baltimore and them in Pittsburgh… was there?
In 2010, I was asked to speak at a Maryland Film Festival panel. The topic was DIY filmmaking, and Something to Be Desired was cited as an example of creating something from nothing. When people asked me what my budget was for the average episode of STBD, I told them every episode cost about $20, give or take. That’s what I paid for tapes. Everything else was free, aside from any food I could afford to share with the cast.
My fellow panelists and the moderator had all worked on films that had real, if minor, budgets, so they’d become familiar with a fundraising tool I hadn’t heard of until then: Kickstarter.
I went home and researched it.
By August of 2010, I had a new plan.
I launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a season of an STBD spin-off called The Baristas. My rationale was that if we shrank the cast, filmed only in Affogato, and binged on production in week-long bursts, I could travel back and forth from Baltimore to Pittsburgh on three or four separate occasions and film a twenty episode season. It seemed just crazy enough to work. I asked for $3000; I raised $3500, mostly from dedicated fans of the show who wanted to see it live on, even in an altered form.
The Baristas debuted in January of 2011. It ran for eleven episodes, and then went on hiatus because we simply couldn’t film it as quickly as I’d expected. Instead of only traveling to Pittsburgh three or four times, I was driving up at least once a month, and shooting whatever I could around the schedules of whomever was available. The show, which was even more formally plot-driven than STBD had been, was suffering from too many moving pieces and no stabilizing force because even its creator was always somewhere else.
By then Lacey was justifiably burned out on having invested seven years in a show that never quite seemed to go anywhere, and she informed us that she was leaving. As with STBD, I knew we could reconfigure the show around the other characters, but her absence was palpable. By the time we sorted out the details of how to keep the show moving without her, the other shoe dropped: Affogato was being sold.
The new owners knew about the show, and they agreed that we could keep filming there, at least until we found another location. My goal was to wrap up the last nine episodes of the season and then consider my options, but I was once again out of money and couldn’t afford to travel back to Pittsburgh as often as I needed to. Making matters worse, the new owners immediately began remodeling and repainting the cafe, creating continuity problems galore as we tried to work every new change into the show despite having filmed it all out of order. One day they decided to sell all the books that had been on the shelves for years, and a guy came with a truck to pick them all up. Our cast, dressed to film, helped him load hundreds of books into his truck, and then he drove away with three years’ worth of our set. After that we couldn’t show the cafe’s west wall for the rest of the season because it wouldn’t match what we’d already shot. By the final episode we were confined to shooting everything but the kitchen area in tight angles because nothing else matched.
I had filmed STBD almost exclusively with a crew of zero — just me and my handheld camera — but The Baristas had a small, loyal volunteer crew. My cameraman, Mike Sorg, ended up directing large portions of those last nine episodes while I reviewed the footage online from Baltimore days later and ordered reshoots for the following week. Scheduling was such a nightmare that they would sometimes film scenes for Monday’s episode on a Friday or Saturday night, after exhausted cast members had just been in stage productions hours earlier, and then the footage was uploaded overnight so I could splice it into that week’s episode.
Given all of that, it’s a miracle that The Baristas actually did finish its first season with a relatively coherent storyline. And yet, I knew it couldn’t keep going on like that. I struggled with how we might keep the show afloat. I’d been quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying the show was expected to run for 100 episodes, but now I was considering shutting it down after 20.
In a particularly apt case of life imitating art, the bottom fell out on The Baristas when Affogato’s new owners couldn’t keep up with their bills and the cafe was shut down and liquidated, much like the fictional WANT FM had been years earlier.
With no location, a cast in flux, and no ability to guarantee that we’d be able to produce new episodes, The Baristas ended even more unceremoniously than STBD did.
Perhaps worst of all, since the show ran vastly over budget, the $3500 we started with was gone long before we even finished the first eleven episodes. In fact, our Kickstarter backers never even received their perks, which is a failure that will weigh on me for years. Sometimes I think I should make good on those perks, even if it is a few years later. But then, I’m not sure anyone would want a free pen and a t-shirt from a web series that no longer exists.
In 2012, Ann and I broke up. Unlike most of my relationships, this one actually ended well. We’re still friends. She’s happy in Baltimore, and she intends to stay here.
I, on the other hand, am indifferent.
Baltimore is an interesting city, and while I like some things about it, there are other problems here that never seem to get better. It’s a city that exists in the minds of most Americans as the drug-infested hellhole depicted in The Wire. And while that aspect of the city is inarguably true, that’s not its whole story.
Maybe someone should tell that story, but I’m not sure that person is me.
The cast of STBD and The Baristas have mostly moved on. Many of them are married and have kids. They’ve become the adults that their characters always resisted becoming.***
Meanwhile, The Guild has also completed six seasons. If they produce another, they’ll become the web’s longest-running sitcom.
When I mentioned on Facebook that STBD was 10 years old this month, Will Guffey commented that I should reboot the series wherever I’m living now. Others agreed. Suggestions were offered. Maybe STBD could start over with the same characters, just recast with new actors in their 20s, and we could see what would have happened if Jack hadn’t left in the middle of the story. Or, maybe STBD could somehow continue with all new characters, and a nominal appearance by one of the original cast members, just to cement it in the same fictional world.
I’m not sure about that, either.
In truth, I haven’t created anything since The Baristas ended. When I accepted a full-time job last year and took a break from freelancing I thought the stable income and structured day would provide me with ample time to do something creative, but as anyone with a full-time job knows, that “spare” time is usually spent long before it arrives.
I do write a lot, though, and I’ve been tinkering with a few new stories for a couple years now. None of them are in script form yet. Just notebooks filled with names, plotlines, themes, bits of dialogue… Mostly for films, because that’s still the easiest way to “break in” from the outside.
But there’s one idea I keep coming back to that’s too big for a movie. It’s a large, complicated ensemble dramedy, about characters delaying their own adulthood over the course of several years. It feels like a natural extension of STBD, or its spiritual twin. And sure, I could boil the story’s core conflict down to ninety minutes and try to film it all as an independent feature…
… but every time I think about it, I ask myself, “Yeah… but what happens next?”
* In the first of dozens of cases where real life forced STBD to adapt on the fly, Jack actually was supposed to be at Caroline’s post-graduation celebration. But on the day we were filming, Erica went into labor, so his absence in the scene had to be accounted for. In the middle of shooting that scene without him, Dan called to let us all know that he was now a dad. His daughter Ava turns 10 in January.
** Fun fact: I asked a friend of mine to take photographs of that 2006 casting call. Her name is Justine Ezarik, but a few years later the world came to know her as iJustine. She’s currently one of the most-watched YouTube stars of all-time, but before she was huge, she made guest appearances in two episodes of STBD.
*** In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the STBD cast members with the most IMDb credits are two non-actors who left the show after season two: Mia La Monica (Marjorie) has worked as a PA on dozens of movies and TV shows filmed in Pittsburgh, including The Dark Knight Rises and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while my old AIP roommate Ben Bratt (Ray) went on to get a Master’s Degree in visual effects and has worked on films like Skyfall, X-Men: First Class, and Man of Steel.