Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit. Rebecca also writes the Writers on the Web column for ScriptMag where she explores the production process of creating web series, and enjoys teaches screenwriting classes and webinars through Screenwriters University and The Writers Store. Rebecca is also a busy script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!
Those of you who follow my column know that I love writers, directors, and actors who take their careers into their own hands and create their own work. I was excited to come across two such individuals recently: writer/director/producer Evan Muehlbauer, and writer/producer/actor Lyman Johnson of the new web series Brian Remus: Science Genius.
You may remember Lyman as “White Jay” from the Issa Rae’s hit web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but what you may not know is that Lyman has degree in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University. Evan graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor's degree in Film Studies, and from USC's School of Cinematic Arts with a master's degree in Film Production. Together, Evan and Lyman took their love of both comedy and science and created Brian Remus: Science Genius, a fresh workplace sitcom about a science geek (Lyman), who’s on a quest to become the greatest science show host who ever lived.
Unfortunately, after landing what he thought was his dream job, Brian finds himself stuck at a failing TV station with a team of incompetent coworkers. He’ll stop at nothing to make to turn his show around, but before he can inspire a new generation of scientists, he’ll have to start with the ragtag crew that surrounds him (including comedienne/SNL writer Heather Anne Campbell and Glee star Curt Mega).
Evan and Lyman were kind enough to share their writing and producing journey with me, and also how they attracted some star talent to their web series.
Rebecca: Tell us about the origin of the series and what inspired you to create your own work.
EM and LJ: A while back, Lyman and one of his friends were kicking around an idea for a show about two buddies who go on adventures through space and time using crazy inventions. Brian had stolen his PhD from a Mad Scientist Academy and was on the run from their evil debt collectors, going on hijinks and using zany inventions for good.
We eventually stripped away most of the fantasy elements. Later on, after Evan got involved, we came to prefer the idea of a fairly normal, disempowered guy fighting the banal evil of everyday superstition and anti-intellectualism. We can’t really think of another show that does that, whereas there are already a million funny sci-fi adventures (such as Rick and Morty or Dr. Who). But the fantasy element is still present in the form of Brian’s rich imaginative life. So even though his day-to-day life is a grind, to put it mildly, you also see him riding around the cosmos with his spiritual mentor Carl Sagan.
Rebecca: How did your work in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl inform your work in Brian Remus? Are the characters similar in any way or did you want to write a completely different character for yourself?
Lyman: White Jay is sweet, nonjudgmental, self-effacing, and very, very awkward. He stammers, hates half of what accidentally falls out of his mouth, and is generally apologetic of his own presence.
Brian, on the other hand, is a total narcissist but tries to hide it. He has an idealized reverence of the scientific method and a sincere desire to help the world and be as inspiring and passionate as his heroes, but he is easily conned and lacks any courage of his convictions.
They’re similar in that both characters are deeply steeped in my own mannerisms. Their two histories, and the content of their respective shows, shape them into different people, but my approach to acting has always been “this character is me, what would I do in this situation with these thoughts?”
Rebecca: Lyman, you're also a mechanical engineer - how much of your background did you infuse into the character of Brian and the show? Any funny true situations from your science background that you worked into the scripts?
Lyman: I’d say my engineering background hasn’t so much provided me with funny scientific situations as it has the ability to see humor in decidedly un-scientific situations.
A lot of scenes — including many that we had to cut — were inspired by real interactions I’ve had with irritating hippies and luddites. It may not surprise you to hear that in Hollywood, as in the rest of the country, there are a lot of people with insane beliefs culled together from half-read headlines and misunderstood conversations. A few examples:
I once learned that if it weren’t for the pesticides, smoking tobacco would cure aging.
Another time, a man taught me that microwaves are bad because they take all the “photons” out of your food. Somebody probably told him once about the mild degradation of “phytonutrients” that all cooking has on food, but he misheard them and proceeded to spin out a whole mythology about how food powers you because it’s infused with mystical light, which he explained to me at length.
Rebecca: What was your writing process for the show? Do you use any kind of a writer's room approach or did you develop all the episodes yourselves?
EM and LJ: The approach was pretty organic. Lyman wrote two or three episodes upfront that more or less determined the format. Basically, the initial scripts were three to five pages and took the shape of a slice of action rather than a full story with beginning, middle, and end. Early on, we were struggling with how to pull off the show’s premise in short form. There were several attempts at a pilot that just weren’t practical. And we found that as soon as things got too “sitcommy”, the work became an impossible and unpleasant task of trying to cram in full stories that wouldn’t fit.
So nailing the format was important, and once Lyman did that, he sent his sample episodes to Evan, who reworked them. Evan twisted the initial tone just a bit so that it became more irreverent and absurdist. This dry run incidentally gave us our modus operandi, where one of us would write a complete episode and then send it to the other for reworking. It was a pretty smooth process, because we were usually on the same page in terms of what worked and what didn’t. Oddly enough, not once were we in a room together writing at the same time. But when all was said and done, each episode really was a fifty-fifty contribution.
Rebecca: Tell us about your casting process. You were able to secure some star power for the show - how did you go about it?
EM and LJ: The show’s casting definitely turned out to be one of its strong suits in that we were able to put together such a talented ensemble from limited resources. We made the right call early on to allow ourselves as much time as necessary to find the cast. Evan and Jesse (the show’s producer) went to film school together and noticed that many student projects were undone by casting to meet deadlines. So we decided from day one to take as long as we needed to fill every role without compromising.
We saw lots of talented actors, but we were choosy because we wanted people who not only were right for the parts but also brought new dimensions to the characters we’d written. We sent out a zillion or so casting calls from various online casting services. But we were also fortunate to get a lot of mileage out of our personal networks. Curt Mega, for instance, was a friend of a former classmate of Evan’s. Tristen Winger (HBO's Insecure) was a fellow alumnus from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl who had starred in our initial Kickstarter video. Heather Anne Campbell was probably the most random of these connections, because she and Lyman knew each other from an internet message board they both frequented. But they had never actually met! Heather, of course, is a well-known improv comedian, so we were both surprised and thrilled that our idea caught her interest.
The casting of Carl Sagan deserves its own little story. Lyman initially had the idea of reaching out to a very recognizable D-list celebrity whose name we won’t mention. We explained in our initial query what our budget constraints would be, and both the actor and his manager still seemed interested. However, it became clear once we reached negotiations that the actor and his rep had been stringing us along to get our hopes up, and they ended up demanding a rate that was comically outside our budget range. This was probably for the best, since the actor ended up getting some rather bad, embarrassing press for one of his side projects. We ultimately asked Christopher Kelly, whom Evan worked with previously and, unbeknownst to us, was a Carl Sagan super fan. He ended up doing the most uncanny job channeling Carl Sagan. So this was one of those times when you just shake your head and thank the universe for sending you a cushion to land on.
Rebecca: Was this the first web series you've directed? Was there any difference in directing a series versus previous projects you've directed? Is it more or less difficult to direct your own writing?
Evan: This was my first time directing specifically for the web. I had done a number of short projects previously that ended up living online, and I also edited a docu-series for People Magazine that I was working on concurrently with Brian Remus. But this was the first time I directed something episodic that was conceived specifically for the web.
I can’t say I made major changes to my approach. There were a few things I had to do differently for pragmatic reasons. For instance, we shot the series completely out of order—even more so than I usually do. We were often shooting scenes from multiple episodes in a day, simply because we had the locations for such limited periods. But this wasn’t a huge deal, because I had rehearsed a lot with the actors and scouted the locations with the director of photography. Because we all came prepared, it wasn’t difficult to snap ourselves into the proper mindset. Anyway, it’s not like we were jumping from a bunch of fart jokes to the climax of Sophie’s Choice. Everything we shot sort of had the same tone and spirit of fun to it.
I frequently direct things that I've written, so there was nothing out of the ordinary about wearing both hats. Personally, I see everything from development through post-production as an extension of the same process, which is really just telling a story. On this project, I co-wrote, directed, and edited, and I was always trying to pre-visualize the next step in my head. The danger of working this way is that you are being a little incestuous and therefore making yourself vulnerable to your own shortcomings and bad habits.
So it was important that I had a strong team of collaborators—producer, cinematographer, co-creator, etc.—who weren’t afraid to call me out when I did something idiotic or contrary to human decency. I don’t know if this always an ideal process, but it seems to work in the world of web content, where things have more of a DIY approach than film or television. On the whole, I would say it is easier to direct something you’ve written, because you’ve had more time to chew on it. But if you’re not careful, your mistakes will be magnified.
Rebecca: What are your future plans for the show? Would you want to develop it into a TV series at some point, or do you feel its home is on the web?
EM and LJ: We always thought the show’s premise would work best as a half-hour sitcom. For example, it’s difficult to pull off the show-within-a-show aspect in short form when you’re already starved for minutes. We sort of danced around that problem by making the first season about Brian being so short on funding that his science show never gets off the ground. But the conceit would work quite easily in a longer format, and we also love the idea of juggling subplots and having them tie together. We even put together a show bible in case the networks come knocking.
So turning this into a TV series would be amazing, but we would also love to keep it going on the web. We still have a lot of great ideas percolating, and in story terms, Brian’s journey is just beginning. The main obstacle moving forward will be figuring out how to keep the show funded. I suspect we will either need to get the show picked up by a digital platform that handles production or find some other funding mechanism. The first season's budget was completely crowdsourced. Kickstarter was an incredible resource for us, but as a long-term funding solution it isn’t sustainable. Plus, we called in so many favors the first time around. That well is probably tapped out!
Rebecca: What advice do you have for aspiring web series writers and creators? What lessons did you learn from your experience that you'd like to pass on?
EM and LJ: First, make sure that everything that needs to happen is something you either can do yourself or can pay for. Don’t count on favors from anybody. If you think it’s hard to find someone who will help you move a couch, try asking for ten hours of unsupervised, highly skilled work! It’s not that your friends won’t do it, it’s that they will (and should) prioritize their own professional development and ability to pay for rent and food. Your stuff has to take a backseat to their work, so you might be waiting a long time for that favor to come through.
Also, listen for criticism that doesn’t sound like criticism. You might get questions like “why did the character do this in this scene,” or “are you going to have an episode where we get to see such-and-such?” Don’t just answer it reflexively. Listen to the question behind the question, and realize that they are telling you something isn’t tracking in the current draft.
And definitely align your external and internal conflicts. In the show, Brian is really bent out of shape over his lack of funding, but he should be focusing on the actual conflict: his inability to inspire his crew. His wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Carl Sagan, but at some point he’ll have to realize his own shortcomings. Most of us make similar mistakes in our own lives. It's certainly something we've seen in ourselves.
Watch episodes of Brian Remus: Science GeniusHERE!