Q.Where did the idea for Speedie Date come from? How did you hit upon the idea of doing an anthology series? Did you ever consider telling these stories in another medium (tv, film, novel e.g.)?
A.I remember very clearly the genesis of Speedie Date. I was having coffee with a friend around 1999 in a Starbucks where a speed dating event was taking place. My friend and I marveled at the twenty or thirty people rotating from table to table and tried to come up with explanations as to what was happening. This was in the early years of speed dating, before it had permeated the general consciousness. I believe my friend had heard of it, but didn't know what it was, and brought it up as a possible explanation.
Witnessing speed dating without knowing what is going on is a bit of a surreal experience. Women are sitting at tables talking to men. A bell rings and the men all get up and move to another table. It was like a cult!
I was pursuing television work at the time, and my agents suggested I write a short play, as I was a self-identified playwright (partly because I loved the theater and partly because I was convinced it made me sound smarter and might help land a television job). I didn't have to think long to come up with a topic: by this time I was obsessed with speed dating. I wrote a fifteen minute play which was the basis for the first episode of Speedie Date.
At some point, I tried turning the fifteen minute play into a full length play. The original short and four other speed dating episodes comprised the first act. The second act saw all the characters from the five episodes intermingling. The concept was that two actors would play all the parts, making the second act very difficult to pull off.
As my ambitions turned from television to film, my sometime creative partner and then life partner, Kristiina Hackel, suggested I turn the full length play into a screenplay, which we could then possibly produce as a low-budget feature. Because it is so much easier for me to rewrite a completed work than it is to start something afresh, I threw myself into the project immediately.
During the writers' strike, a call went out for writers to come up with web series ideas that were easily producible. Brainstorming with Kris, now my ex-wife, I suggested using the episodes from the screenplay and combining them with new episodes. Kris loved the idea and I went to work, writing six and a half more in the next two weeks.
The original concept was, and given enough success still is, that we would play out the evening for everyone in the bar, so that there would be ten speed dates total for each character, or a hundred overall. That way, we would have both an anthology and a serialized series, where characters would reappear and recombine. As the series progressed, the emphasis would shift from the individual episode to the characters in it, and the journey they were going on in this evening.
As for the ideas for the individual episodes, usually I started with a premise or a question, and let the characters take the scene where they would. One episode started with the idea that people on speed dates have to present themselves, and that interferes with really being themselves. So I wanted to show the tension between these two states of being. Another started with the idea that I would have two people who had met on a previous speed date. The important thing was to make sure that the episode I was writing was different than the ones I had done before. This became a challenge with the later ones, but by then I had more of a sense of how to write them.
Q.Talk about the process from concept to the web. Do you write outlines for the episodes? How many script drafts? Who else reads the scripts? Is there any approval process, anyone giving notes? What's the shooting schedule like -- how long do you shoot/episode? Are you block shooting or doing each one individually? How long does the edit take and are you involved in that process? How many people are on the crew? What is the Strike TV team like? Are you enjoying the experience of working with them?
A.So many questions. Let's see…
The reason we hit on Speedie Date as appropriate for the web… Kris and I both knew that we wanted something that was easy to produce. It would have to be cheap, since we are both pretty poor, and technically feasible, since this was the first project we would be producing together (we had limited producing responsibilities individually in the past). So, one interior location, no costume changes – it seemed a perfect fit. It was a strange project for me, in a way, as I have been spending so much of the past ten years training myself to tell stories using visual tools, and here I was writing scripts without any visual elements.
The number of drafts for the scripts varied from episode to episode. Because the pieces are short, there was very little reenvisioning, or page one rewriting, once the episode was done. If I didn't like it, I would throw it out and start again.
The real challenge for me in writing these pieces was to get them down to an acceptable length. The first few scenes I wrote were two to three times as long as they are in their present form. I sometimes tend to write long.
I didn't write outlines for the individual episodes. An outline, which is all about structure, is a necessity when writing a screenplay or teleplay. For short pieces, I can intuit the structure. Each episode has a rise and fall, with the climax coming somewhere in the middle. Piece of cake.
As to who read the scripts… Kris would get the draft as soon as I was done writing. I would take her notes, then rewrite the script, then give it to another reader and get more notes. Sometimes I will put a script down for some time, then come back to it and act as my own reader. One of the last stages is having actors read the script aloud. This is once the structure is mostly in place, so I can listen for dialog adjustments (though, inevitably, I find that the script needs some structural work). This was the structure for the first five episodes. The second five I wrote, handed to Kris, and we shot them, more or less in first draft form.
One of the most interesting parts of this experiment (and there were a bunch of interesting aspects to this project, such as producing something with my ex-wife) was that Kris and I agreed to share final cut. Neither of us had total authority, which meant we had to work for consensus. Now, there were times that one or the other of us would take control. In the writing stages, I had final say. If I disagreed with Kris's objections, I would work hard to understand them, but ultimately I would decide on the script's final form. When it came to production, Kris had absolute control on set. I could make suggestions, but she would ignore them as she saw fit. In post-production, we are both equally in control.
As to production proper… We shot all ten episodes in four days. Originally, we had hoped for ten days, and were trying to get a restaurant to donate a space for ten shooting days, an absolutely unrealistic goal. When a sound stage became available for four days, we jumped on it, even though we would have to start shooting in three days and we hadn't done such essential preproduction things as finish casting or nail down a director of photography.
Ten episodes in four days meant we would shoot two or three episodes in a day. Our DP, Bernard Evans, was amazing, allowing us to get as much coverage as we did. One day I believe we shot twenty-two pages. It's also a testament to our first AD, Sona Stamboltsyan, who kept us on schedule, making sure we had everything we needed before the twelfth hour was up. We were very lucky, actually, that everything came together as it did. I'd like to credit our incredible producing skills, but things could have broken the other way just as easily. J.J. Rogers, the owner of the sound stage, said he had some flats we could throw up for a set, and I brought in my friend Jeremiah Greenblatt who was able to make a set out of them on the fly. But what if the owner had been wrong and the flats were unusable? Or if Jeremiah hadn't been available that day? I shudder at the thought.
Or here's a good example of luck: Nick Noce, my downstairs neighbor, works on commercials, in the art department. He's a great guy, and I like him a lot. And I had a sense about him, that he was good at what he did. I asked him if he would be our designer, and he said he would if he didn't have a job. So when production rolled around, he happened to be free on two crucial days, the day before we shot and the first day of shooting. And he did an incredible job with almost no budget, and even got his wife, Maiana Noce, to help out. But he could have just as easily not been free. Or been no good at art direction: after all, he had never run an art department, and never worked in film. Or he could have not been my neighbor, and we would have had to find an art director who would work for free (technically deferred payment, but with no guarantee of income). There were a lot of variables that broke our way.
Of course, I have to give some credit to preparation. We did some things right. Three days before the shoot, we lined up a DP, but she warned us that if she got a paying gig she would have to take it. Kris had the sense and resources to find a backup DP, who agreed to come in if something happened. Sure enough, the day before shooting, our DP got hired away and we frantically tried to reach our other DP to make sure he could do the project.
And the thing I feel we really succeeded at was casting. We found a lot of brilliant actors, and because of our lucky timing (at the end of the actors strike, when jobs were scarce), all our first choices were available and agreed to work with us. This was perhaps our greatest piece of luck.
As to the blocking, that's something that you'll have to ask Kris about. I mean, I know there wasn't a lot of time for rehearsal. This is the biggest regret Kris and I have about such a tight schedule. Kris talked to the actors about their characters beforehand, then read through with the actors a couple of times on the day of, gave notes, and then we were shooting. And we had originally talked about shooting in more of a documentary style, with handheld cameras, but budgetary concerns made that approach impossible.
The crew was not large. We called in favors from a lot of friends, but there were still some holes. We had five people show up on the first day to construct the set and hang lights, which was great. The second day, though, was painting, and it was me and a friend of Kris's, who had to leave after four hours. I was there quite late painting the set by my lonesome. As producer, it fell on me to do everything that the crew didn't cover. I was craft services. I was the P.A., and did the shopping before the day started and after we wrapped.
But the crew that we did have was fairly incredible. Everyone was motivated and worked together. Kris's boyfriend, Kevin Brinn, was amazing, doing all of our electrical work, often working late into the night after a full day at his regular job. Perhaps more unbelievable were the friends of friends who stepped up, like Zee Hatley, who is credited as our second unit DP, but who made a lot of the lighting decisions with our DP and operated one of the two cameras we had (which he supplied). Zee, like a lot of people in Hollywood, is vastly overqualified for his day job, and is ready to take on greater responsibilities, but lacks the opportunity. Here, he worked for free because he wanted to build up his CV, because he liked the project, and because he's generous.
The post-production process was very frustrating at first because I didn't understand the complexity of work that needs to be done after production has been completed. You feel like, whew, that's done, let's put it up. But post-production, and particularly editing, is time-consuming and the decisions that get made have as great an effect on the film as anything else you do.
At first we brought on one editor, Josh Lawrence, who went through a number of versions of what became our third episode. Kris would give feedback and Josh would re-cut. And then I was brought in and had a very different take on the direction of the show. Kris and I had to reconcile our differences – she preferred more close-ups and more cuts, where I wanted to play out medium shots for longer periods. In the end, we compromised, playing out a lot more in close up, but eliminating some of the cuts, to produce a style we both feel serves the material. But it wasn't easy coming to consensus, especially given that neither of us could put our foot down and say, "I'm the boss, this is what I've decided."
Soon, it became apparent that we needed more editors. Josh helped us find a number of talented people, and one of them, Stephanie Hernstadt, stepped up to become our Post Production Supervisor, on top of editing three episodes. I had told Kris that I would act as PPS, not having any idea what a PPS did. Here's a hint to aspiring producers: if you don't know what the job entails, it is probable that you are not qualified to do it. Thank God for Stephanie. Though I am still not sure exactly what her job duties are, I am now extremely confident that I would have made a mess of it.
I love the Strike TV people. They are good people. I like that they are taking this initiative, to create this business and try and reshape the way Hollywood works, to give more power to the artists. I am doing everything I can to support them. I hope they all become rich off this venture.
As far as Speedie Date goes, Strike TV had little to do with the making of it, though they would do whatever they could to help out. We found our terrific still photographer, Damon D'Amato, through Strike TV. The most important thing Strike TV did was to inspire me, and a bunch of other writers, to get off our keisters and make art.
Tomorrow, more from Lorin.