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Writers on the Web: Interview with Writers Stephanie Carrie and Mark Rutman of Web Series "Josie & Dale"

Leland Karn as Dale & Stephanie Carrie as Josie

Leland Karn as Dale & Stephanie Carrie as Josie

On the heels of the Los Angeles Web Series Festival (L.A. WEBFEST) at the end of March, I had the opportunity to interview Stephanie Carrie and Mark Rutman, co-writers of the hilarious, award-winning web series Josie & Dale. The series is a slapstick comedy about an introverted girl who decides to rent her living room out to the wackiest guy she can find, in an effort to spice up her life.

Stephanie Carrie, who also created and co-stars in the series, grew up acting in L.A. and also writes TV shows, plays, sketches, in addition to web series, including several shows for Dreamworks’ YouTube channel, AwesomenessTV, and Nickelodeon. She is currently in pre-production for her new video sketch team #JustBoobsSketch. She also covers web series for the L.A. Weekly in her own column called The Tangled Web We Watch and runs a blog of the same name on how to create web series.

(Stephanie and I were both on the 'Covering the Web' panel at LAWEBFEST, and Josie and Dale took home an Outstanding Achievement Award at the festival for Outstanding Guest Actress. Congrats!)

Writer/Director Mark Rutman is a hardworking and creative immigrant from the Republic of Moldova (F.K.A., the Soviet Union). While growing up in Massachusetts, Mark received his Bachelor's Degree in TV Production from Emerson College in 2007, and promptly disowned the cold weather by moving to sunny L.A. Since then, he has excelled as an Associate Casting Director working on numerous broadcast network pilots and series.

Rebecca: How did you create the concept behind Josie & Dale? What inspired the story?

Stephanie: I wanted to live in the nice part of town before I could afford to live in the nice part of town, so my roommate and I decided to rent out our living room. For two years, whatever crazy thing that livingroom-mate was up to (and people who rent living rooms tend to be QUITE colorful characters) there was no hiding from their lifestyle. I had everything from a livingroom-mate who dressed up as the Easter Bunny and Abraham Lincoln to one who cut herself for attention and was always bleeding on the carpet.

I find web series about people who hate each other quite off-putting, so I didn’t want the reason Josie was renting her living room to be about money. I wanted Josie to WANT a wacky roommate – she wants to be more outgoing. So they became an odd couple with a purpose. And Dale just likes everybody.

Rebecca: If you don't mind sharing, what approximate budget were you working with? Were you able to stay within budget or did costs run over?

Stephanie: Our budget was $0.00 – ie, we needed to do things as cheaply as possible since we were financing it completely ourselves. We didn’t want to ask for money. Mark Rutman and I split all the costs.

Josie's well-fed in Ep. 2 - Sweet Treat

Josie's well-fed in Ep. 2 - Sweet Treat

Our main priority was making the best-looking and sounding product we could AND feeding everyone well. We had an incredible crew of friends, professionals who loved the project, and amazing students from local film schools that the director Mark Rutman reached out to.

Our gaffer cut us a deal for all his equipment and services – and he also played IGOR in the first episode. Everyone else donated their services and they were exceptional. We shot for three 18-hour days and the morale on set was great. Everyone had a wonderful time and that was what I am the most proud of.

I am especially grateful to our insanely talented post team -- composer Chuck Graef, animator Sam Yousefian and sound designer Michael Cross who lent their talents in post. Part of the reason our project took so much time in post (a year) was that since we were asking talented people to work JUST FOR THE LOVE OF THE PROJECT, they had to do it around their paid gigs.

For all four episodes, we managed to spend only about $1,600 total.

Mark: We only had a couple thousand to work with in terms of budget, which is drastically low considering the nature of the project we were determined to shoot. Fortunately, we were able to stay within our budget, but only because of our dedicated cast and crew, who found themselves creatively involved in our project just as much as we were. Talent, time, and much of the equipment was donated to our project, which made shooting such a high quality web series possible for such a low budget.

Rebecca: How did you go about finding locations? Did you find any of your locations for free or cheap from friends and relatives, or did you have a locations budget set aside? 

Stephanie: Locations were not in our budget of $0.00, no. My house was the house. The Venice Boardwalk was the Venice Boardwalk, and we called in favors from friends to get the office in episode one (we shot on the weekend for a few hours at a friend’s office).

Facebook is invaluable for asking friends for help and locations because each person you know is connected to a network of other people. This is also a great reason to HELP YOUR FRIENDS whenever they are looking for a location or help on a set – because they will be more inclined to help you in return.

Bars and restaurants are by far the hardest and most expensive places to film, so in general I always try to write those scenes as house parties whenever possible. That wasn’t relevant for this project, by design.

Rebecca: Did any of your locations require insurance?

Stephanie: I’m sure they “did.” Uhhhhhh, no comment. Actually, I WILL comment that we blew a fuse at my house because of all the lighting and we lost about 2 ½ hours trying to get the lights to work and re-arranging where things were plugged in. Always have extra extension cords.

Rebecca:What were other creative ways that you were able to save money in your budget, while still delivering a quality product?

Mark: One creative way we were able save money was to double up on cast/crew. Our Director of Photography helped out with Hair/Make-up when needed and was also our Editor. Many of our dedicated cast brought their own wardrobe. Even our Key Grip who provided much of the equipment, guest-starred in one of our episodes as the angry Russian neighbor IGOR.

Stephanie: Our main budget savings was the many talented people who worked for free on the project. Everyone who read the scripts loved the concept and wanted to be on board because they thought the scripts were hilarious. That was a great lesson in the power of making something you believe in. If you’ve put the work in, other people will want to work on it.

Mark had the great idea of reaching out to film schools and film programs at universities, emailing professors and asking if they had students who wanted to beef up their resume, get experience on set, and meet people in the industry. Web series are great opportunities for networking and meeting people to help YOU out on your next project so we got some AWESOME students including Eric Hamidi and Lauren Berman to help us out as PA’s. We literally could not have done three 18-hour day shoots without them. Each and every person on our crew was invaluable and we have a huge amount of appreciation for them.

We needed a puppy for one shot and Mark made a deal with a local shelter that we would make a promo video to help find the doggy a home, if we could borrow him for a couple hours.

Line Producer Mark Demarias

Line Producer Mark Demarias

Our line producer, Mark Demarias, set up his office in my kitchen and masterfully planned our meals so that we could keep things affordable and still keep everybody happy. He also kept us on schedule and even sent out parking maps of the area to all the cast and crew – a true professional.

Facebook. Facebook. Facebook. If you want to save money on props and costumes, ask your friends. You might spend some money on gas, driving around to pick things up, but you will be surprised what people have lying around – like A LIVE CHICKEN, or the perfect black beret you were about to spend $15.00 on Amazon to buy, etc. Just remember to be the person who offers to help out when others are in need too.

Rebecca: Is there anything on your shoot you wish you had done differently, or anything you think you guys think went great that you're really glad you did? Any lessons learned from the experience?

Stephanie: Of course we wish we could have paid everyone. Not only did they earn it, it would have helped us move more quickly through the post-production process and perhaps given us a couple extra days to shoot if we’d had the budget. As it was, we felt the need to get it done quickly on a 3-day weekend since everyone was working for free.

I wrote this show over a year ago and since then I have been covering web series for the L.A. Weekly and blogging about them for creators, and I’ve learned a LOT. In retrospect, what I learned about creating a CONCEPT of a web series is that the more specific the audience you make it for, the more niche your subject matter, the better. That gets people excited. That gets people to share it. After the obvious fact that your series should be ‘good’, it will be most successful if you are doing something new form-wise (ie. 7p10e), subject matter-wise (ie. High Maintenance) or you have a very SPECIFIC community that is excited to see their story told. Although I think we executed our concept well, ‘odd couple roommates’ is too general an idea to really get a following. Oh well, learned a lot. Moving on! And I hope those who watch enjoy it and learn something too!

Rebecca: What advice would you give to novice content creators just starting out?

Mark: Always be doing projects. Whether it's writing, shooting, or editing, the more you do, the more you learn. With advancements in technology, it doesn't cost anything to go out and make a project. Cell phone cameras are very high quality these days, so even if you have to work with restrictions on lighting or locations, there's always something to be shot.

Stephanie: As I mentioned in the question above – be specific. On TV you want to speak to the masses, on the web, you want to find your niche. Felicia Day targeted gamers. High Maintenance targeted people who smoke pot. Video Game High School targeted gamers and younger audiences on YouTube.

And/or tell a story from a perspective you know well or no one has seen before. Azie Mira Dungee made Ask A Slave about her experience working as a historical actor on George Washington’s plantation, portraying a slave. Teal Sherer made My Gimpy Life about her experience as an actress who happens to be confined to a wheelchair. Christobal Ross made Gringolandia about a Chilean guy who moves to New York City – as you may have guessed… he’s a Chilean guy who moved to New York City. All of these shows are fantastic and like nothing you see on TV.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to talented people whose work you admire. Yeah, if they're famous and well-paid already, they may not say yes. But if they’re not quite famous yet and you loved their directing in a specific web series or the editing of their short film, they’ll be flattered and they’ll take a look at your stuff. If your writing/concept is good, they’ll want to work with you. You don’t HAVE to just use your friends. But friends are great and building pro-active communities of artists who help each other out is invaluable.

Also – good sound is more important than ANYTHING.

Rebecca: Congrats on your acceptance to L.A. WEBFEST! How was your experience at the festival?

Stephanie: We really enjoyed the web fest. The amount of talent, experience and diversity all convening in one place was so exciting and inspiring. We met people with series from Spain, Australia, New York, England, France and just down the street. The panels were exceptional. I think the fest's strength is definitely the amount of knowledge it brings together in one place. I do there there's an organizational element that can improve, and I'm sure everyone would have liked to see their series screened on a larger screen, but it's quite a feat to bring so many people together and screen so many series, so I'm sure they'll smooth out the bumps eventually.

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