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Clear Direction: A Screenwriter’s Path to Writing a Web Series

Web series writer and director Joseph Ralko doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t trading funny stories with friends and family at the dinner table.

Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.

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As a youth growing up on Staten Island, NY, web series writer and director Joseph Ralko doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t trading funny stories with friends and family at the dinner table.

“I love to make people laugh. I love to make people forget the world for a second. I love to entertain. That’s why before an artist, I consider myself an entertainer,” he says. “That rush and excitement I used to get in making my parents and their friends laugh while sitting at the dinner table, it’s still the same rush I go after now.”

During the day, Ralko works on the hit television show Blue Bloods and in the evenings, works on the second season of his web series, Lorraine Russo’s Family Diaries, a series devoted to the story about a middle-aged woman (with no name attached) who auditions for Mob Wives after her husband is sent to prison. To ensure she gets on the show, she makes her teenage son pose as gay and her teenage daughter, fake a pregnancy. Lorraine quickly learns that she may have hit too close to home with her plans.

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“It’s just a story about a crazy family in a crazy borough. My hope is that it can make everyone smile and laugh,” he says. “I think the thing that draws people to this project is its honesty and the fact that it’s straight up in its ultimate goal to entertain.”

Ralko, 22, a BFA graduate of Screenwriting from the School of Visual Arts in NYC, plans to premiere the first episode on Wednesday September 20th at 7pm.

How did you begin writing your web series?

Well, I’ve been telling stories since I was little. Both my parents are Italian-American and proud NYPD officers.

I bet they had lots of stories to share!

Even though they really lived the stories they told, it felt like fantasies to me because it was totally different from the city I grew up with. That kind of informed me on how I started to tell, and later write stories. I would take things that happened in my life and tell them to my friends and family and see what kept their interests, what made them laugh, etc. So, I began to pick up on how to pace a story and what the good beats of a story are.

I grew up with a house full of people sitting around the table swapping stories. I loved telling stories much like my parents. There was such a rush in being able to make people laugh and have them listen to your every word. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I can write my stories on pen and paper and create even grander worlds.

My web series is based on a feature I wrote junior year of college. I was really proud of it but quickly realized how difficult it was getting people to sit down and read 120 pages of your words. I looked at how big the world I created was with all these characters and interconnected stories and realized that a web series was a natural fit.

Script EXTRA: An Intro to Web Series Distribution

What or who was your inspiration for the stories and characters?

My mother was a huge inspiration. My mother was the type of mom who would actually threaten to beat my ass, and I was scared she actually would. She was also the person who would do anything in the world for me and believe in me more than anyone else. I love that about Italian mothers. One second they want to beat you, the next they want to feed you.

In my opinion, that’s the perfect base on which to write a character because their essence is passion.

My other inspiration was growing up in Staten Island. I felt like I was always around two distinct groups of people. On one side, you had the people that always fought to show Staten Island was more than what’s portrayed on film and television. On the other side, you had people who are actually as they’re portrayed. Connecting it back to Italian mothers, I love the idea of ladies like the ones on Mob Wives, yeah, they’re loud, brash and violent but they also have humor, compassion and loyalty. That’s what I grew up with, and that’s what I find interesting to write.

 Actors in "Lorraine Russo's Family Diaries"

Actors in "Lorraine Russo's Family Diaries"

Give me the 411 on your current day job.

I’m currently the Additional 2nd Assistant Accountant on Blue Bloods. I wanted to get into the writing department full time but a family friend was an accountant on the show so she gave me my “break.” I started as a part-time clerk but when a job opened up within the department, I was offered it. While I never expected to be in the accountant department – I never passed a math test in high school ha ha – I jumped on the opportunity. I try to do my job to the best of my abilities because I know how many people would kill to be in my shoes. I’m using my time here to make as many connections as I can. Besides, what’s a better way to learn about the industry first hand than on a hit network TV show!

How does your day job inform your web series?

My day job at Blue Bloods taught me two things that helped with this project; discipline and delegation. Discipline because you really have to focus on each stage of the film making process without rushing. Every stage builds upon itself, so, if you rush one, you just create a weak foundation for the rest to stand.

What do you mean?

I try to learn from everything I do and the first season of Lorraine Russo was a learning experience. I look back on the first season with pride, but I’m also its harshest critic. I see where I dropped the ball in terms of writing or where the cinematography could've been better or the editing more nuanced. I tried to correct my mistakes for Season Two, and I believe I did create a stronger product than last year.

That being said, I hope a year from now I look back on it and see what I could’ve done better. I truly believe you never stop learning especially when you’re an artist. You have to have confidence, but you also have to know how to look at your work critically. You’re the only person who can make yourself grow. No one can or will do it for you.

Delegation because on Blue Bloods we have over two hundred people on the crew, everyone has a job and place, and it really does become like a machine. Everyone needs to be on their game and do their part to get the overall big picture done. So, everyone on a small independent project like my web series, it's important to delegate and collaborate to get one complete vision across.

Script EXTRA: Casting a Web Series

I imagine there's a delicate balance between delegating and collaborating. What are some of the qualities needed to be a successful writer and director of your own work?

You have to have confidence. Being young and fresh out of college, you have to know exactly what you’re doing and know exactly how to communicate your vision to your cast and crew. Otherwise, people will either dismiss you or try to take over and change your project.

But confidence doesn’t mean arrogance. I love when my actors come to me with a line change or want to try an improv. They give me the respect as director for the permission to do it. I, as director, have to let them do it, it’s the only way the characters I wrote become humans and not just words on paper.

It also shows their passion for the project. You never want an actor to come in and do a line reading and leave.

What challenges did you face getting the series started and going?

The biggest challenge was scheduling. Because I work full time we're only able to shoot on weekends. It's a struggle trying to make it in the film industry. I'm lucky enough to have a full time job on a hit television show, but even after 40 plus working hours a week I still work another 40 on my own personal scripts because I want my own content out in the world.

What’s your advice to writers working full­-time jobs?

To keep writing. No one is going to come and hand you your dream. You have to wake up every day and hustle to get what you want out of life. I work 40 hours a week as an accountant, but I don’t consider that my job. My “real” job begins every day at 6pm when I get home from work and write and develop my own projects. Every day, seven days a week.

No matter what you do, whether you work full-time or you’re unemployed, you need to write at least an hour a day. You have to daydream and think creatively and look at everyone in your life and wonder what their story is. So many people lay around and wait for an idea to hit them but you’ll never make it in the industry like that. You have to look at creativity as a tool to turn on and off, not something that you do whenever you feel like it.

How can they manage the hustle?

You have to really figure out what’s important to you and what you want out of life. I know I like to be in charge and not work for other people. I like hearing my stories come to life and want to make my career out of that more than anything. So that’s what I work to achieve. I give up watching television or socializing as much as I like because I have such a drive that I won’t settle for anything less than reaching my dreams.

Why should a writer make a web series?

A web series is hands down the best way for a writer to get their content out into the world. At the end of the day you want to draw people in with your story. You can scrounge up very little money, you can grab a camera, find some actors and you’re good to go. For better or worse, it’s a lot easier getting someone to watch ten minutes of something you made than to read ten minutes of something you wrote. Plus, it’s now online for the world to see!

You have some great people on the 2nd season of your web series Lorraine Russo's Family Diaries including a DP who works for NFL films, a young up and coming male model who’s been featured on the Today Show and your star, Lydia Fiore who's been in numerous films that have premiered across various film festivals and is a member of the Actor's Green Room.

The project is small and independent and also stars a lot of Staten Island natives. I think the web series is fun because it takes the stereotypes of Staten Island that we all know and lovingly turns it all on its head.

How did you land such talent?

I landed such great people solely on the story and people's passion for working creatively. No one is getting paid to work on this project (and I go into debt making it) but we all care so strongly about the characters and story that we put in the time and effort to make a product we can be proud of.

Script EXTRA: Where's My Money?

How much are you in debt?

This season is costing me between 3-5K. I’m fortunate to be working full time so I have a steady income but that’s still a lot of money for this type of web series. It’s hard to make money at first on a web series. You need millions of views and subscribers before you start to really make money and even then those channels usually parlay that into endorsement deals, which is how they make a bulk of their money.

I assume you use locals so they can keep it authentic, right?

Exactly. Using local actors gives me the chance to make sure I’m being authentic because I have them to validate it. It’s also a chance to help each other out. Staten Island is called the forgotten borough but it’s rich with so much talent. Any opportunity I have to work with locals in any capacity I will because it only helps in getting the borough into the light more.

How does your series take the stereotypes of Staten Island that we all know, and lovingly turn it all on its head? Can you give me some examples?

So Lorraine’s son, Danny between the two seasons struggles with his identity. What does it mean to be gay in today’s society, and what does it mean to be straight? And what does that all mean when you live in Staten Island. On Staten Island, (and I’m sure many other places) you’re put into a box. If you’re gay, you like fashion and Broadway. If you’re straight, you like sports and have a certain bravado. Danny feels stuck in the middle cause he feels like he doesn’t belong in either category. He wants to still be the star lacrosse player, but at the same time, wants a boyfriend. That’s something I saw many people struggle with throughout high school and always wanted to write about.

 Ralko, center, previews footage

Ralko, center, previews footage

What do you hope to achieve with the series?

I would love the series to get noticed by a network or streaming site and graduate off YouTube and into the big leagues.

How do you approach people to donate their time on this project?

It’s honestly just a shot in the dark. I pitch them the story, I tell them my thoughts on their characters, and I hope for the best. I’m really lucky to be working with this group of actors. Not only are they talented beyond belief, but they do everything in their power to get this project made from taking off work, working long hours and even skipping lunch when we’re on a time crunch! They’re all incredibly talented, smart and funny. The level of commitment and care they’ve shown for this project is something I’ll always be grateful for.

What prompted you to start your own series?

I started the web series because I loved growing up in my hometown of Staten Island. I always found it fascinating because all the stereotypes that Staten Islanders get portrayed as from reality shows like Mob Wives and Jersey Shore are 100% true for the most part. However, we're still humans and everyone goes through shit. I thought it would be interesting to write a story using stereotypes, but instead of trying to "break" the stereotypes, I give them layers that slowly come out under whatever exterior they portray.

Did you do it for love of story and characters or for writing and directing experience too?

For the love of the story and characters. I love writing stories about experiences I’ve had growing up. It’s also an opportunity to build up my portfolio and show people what I’ve been doing since graduating.

What is the stereotype in your own words?

The stereotype is loud, brash, in your face. Fake tans, big muscles, tight clothes. Cockiness, Arrogance, Abruptness. Lastly and most importantly a hijacking of what they think is “Italian heritage” so glorifying the mafia for example.

My web series deals with a woman whose husband is in the mafia but it’s not a mob story and doesn’t glorify the mafia. It shows what a mother will do to provide for her family when she suddenly becomes a single mother due to her husband’s actions.

Are you a fan of Mob Wives, Jersey Shore, or Hair Goddess?

I’m a fan of all them (laughs). I think people take their television habits too seriously. Sometimes it’s fun to just watch simply entertaining things like those shows. Again, for every person that says these shows promote bad stereotypes, I can show you the same amount of people who are exactly like those people on those shows.

For all the good and the bad, I truly feel like Staten Island is the greatest place in the world so I wanted to write something that captures all the craziness and fun that living here is. Above all, though, I just want to make people laugh and be entertained for the ten minutes they watch my episodes.

The web series currently has 300 subscribers and almost 11,000 views while we keep hustling for more subscribers and viewers everyone attached to the project is very proud of how far we've come. The web series stars a middle-aged woman and has no "name" attached to it and is a narrative story which is always hard to attract people to when it's web based.

 Ralko and Lydia Fiore

Ralko and Lydia Fiore

What can viewers expect in the new season?

Since we last saw Lorraine, she was dealing with the aftermath of discovering her son, Danny, was gay and her daughter, Victoria, was pregnant. In the new season, we meet Danny’s college boyfriend and see the struggles Victoria is facing as a single mother. When Lorraine finds out that Michael, her husband, is getting released from prison early, she becomes determined to make sure everything was the same as it was before he left. No matter the cost.

Where does the series go next?

In terms of story, I really want the world to expand. We see more of Lorraine’s best friend, Linda, and we’re introduced to her daughter, Alyssa. We see more of Frank, Victoria’s ex and the baby’s father. We see how he handles (or rather doesn’t handle) fatherhood. I really want to create a world where the viewer feels like they’re watching a slice of life.

What are your future plans?

Right now, I plan to stay in NYC for the next two years building up my connections before moving out to L.A. with Robert Cuollo, my business partner and producer of Lorraine Russo’s Family Diaries.

Rob and I, along with his cousin Vincent have our own production company, SixTooMany Productions. Right after Lorraine Russo wraps in early August, we go right into production of Rob’s feature directorial debut The Damaged.

NOTE: Adult language

If I can just quickly give some mention to the actors who really make the web series what it is.

Lydia Fiore, our star who plays the lead, Lorraine, is simply amazing. She gives such dedication not just to her character but the entire story. She really cares and has such amazing energy that you can’t help but step your game up around her. She had a successful career in the fashion industry before leaving it to pursue acting full time. She’s been working non stop and her big break is coming any second.

Stephanie Garcia (Victoria) and Sabrina Cataudella (Linda) are the voices of calm on set. They always give off good vibes and always keep the energy positive when the set can get tense. Stephanie runs from her job at Starbucks in Manhattan, hops on the ferry and makes her way to Staten Island, an almost two-hour commute one way, just to be a part of the project – that’s how dedicated she is. Sabrina’s character was only in one episode last season, but I was so impressed, drawn into her and her take on the character, Linda, that this season she’s in six episodes! Sabrina is also a Staten Islander and is big help in making sure I keep things real.

Matt Ciaccio (Danny) and Summer Moran (Gabby) are also native Staten Islanders and bring a level of authenticity that I couldn’t have achieved without them. Matt, even though he just graduated high school, is wise beyond his years and understands acting like he’s been doing it for decades. Summer, I’ve worked with on numerous projects and is one of those rare triple threats. Her star has been on the rise over the years and it’s been exciting to be a part of her roller coaster to success.

Max Matchton plays Frank in the web series and is also the youngest cast member at only 15 years old. However, he has such a naturalness to him. He’s grown incredibly as an actor just with knowing him for a year. In five years (if not sooner), he’s going to be blowing up Hollywood. He’s got old-school Hollywood charm, looks and talent that you want in a leading man.

For more information on the web series, check out the YouTube channel.

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