We got together with writer/director Pavel Shepan and producer Bianca Herold from Seventh Crow, creators of the award winning supernatural drama Judas Goat, to pick their brains about the process of writing and developing a web series. Judas Goat has just been endorsed and distributed by White Wolf, creators of Vampire: The Masquerade, and is now available on Steam.
What came first, the idea for a web series or the concept itself?
What came in the very first place was an idea for a 3 minute short. It’s night, a man comes back to his house with a woman. They kiss voraciously and stumble towards the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind them. As they land on the bed, we can see their bodies mingle: fingers tangling, lips smooching, hands moving across the naked skin. In one of the close ups, we see something is wrong – there is a third pair of hands there, a pale an old hand that joins the fray. The woman realizes something isn’t quite right but it’s too late – the vampire hiding in the bedroom rips her throat out and rejuvenates, becoming a younger version of itself as the half-naked man watches with a resigned look. The end.
That was the kernel that got me excited about the perspective of a vampire servant. The scene is still in there, in a slightly altered form, in Episode 1. As the story evolved and things were added, the themes moved a little away from sex and into memories and their interplay with emotional dependencies, but the undercurrent is still there.
I guess the main reason we chose the web lies somewhere between ambition and masochism. We were encouraged not to make anything over 30 mins, though we knew our story is going to be bigger and didn’t see a meaningful way to cut down. And since counting on film festivals to play your 45 minute film is a very risky assumption, we decided to go straight to a mass audience and see if there really is demand for the kind of story we were making.
What was the goal?
It was pure passion and frankly it was the only thing that kept the project going at times. We never harbored any illusions about any sort of recoupment, the series simply cost too much. We felt we’re doing something new, something unique and that felt important. It was an insanely ambitious shoot considering our very meager means, and I think a lot of people recognized it and helped us along the way. If you look at the credits, there’s about 60 people there who made it happen with us. I feel like this wouldn’t have happened if the project was mediocre in scope. I guess crazy can be infectious.
And yeah, I guess partly it was a calling card. It meant we take our work seriously and aren’t afraid of a challenge. From my directorial perspective, I wanted to show I care about stories and not just pretty frames. I do understand it was probably naive, since you can achieve that without being insane, but there was something honest and spunky about that mindset. The truth is some things are just cheaper to shoot. And if you don’t have lots of money, you have to work twice as hard to get those things you can’t afford. Plenty of people advised us against making a long genre piece with supernatural vfx, matte paintings and heightened reality art style. Which is actually very sensible advice. But that’s not how we felt, which comes back to passion. Honestly, you’re probably not going to make a lot of films before you die so if something’s going to take a year of your life…
How was the amount of episodes decided?
The good thing about web series as a format is that there really isn’t one. In a twist of fate that you wouldn’t expect of a writer-director, I was actually arguing for episodes being as short as possible. My reasoning was that the internet is an infrastructure of quick, readily available information, and I wasn’t sure a longer piece would find its audience. If a friend sends me a video link, the first thing I do is check how long it is. If it’s around 5-minute mark I’ll usually watch it straight away, but if it’s over 10 minutes I’ll usually bookmark it “for later”, which may or may not come.
So, it was discussed at length with the producer and the editor and it settled at around 5-10 mins each. Letting the story dictate the breaks rather than a stiff format, in hindsight, was a very good decision – after all, no point sticking to scheduling slots on the web.
I do realize now that at least a chunk of my opposition to extended runtimes was rooted in how self-conscious I was about my work back then. A sizeable chunk of feedback we received from fans was about the episodes being too short – people were just getting into the mood, and then BAM! – end credits. This is one of the reasons why I’d always recommend working with an editor, to get a fresh perspective on things.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s an “appropriate” length for a web episode. Comedy gives you a bit more leeway than drama/horror though, since you need time to build the suspense, to lure the audience into the feel of the world you’re portraying.
Did the story structure for your web series differ from anything else you’ve worked on before?
Oh yes, definitely. We’d never done anything like this before. At the writing stage, we knew it was going to be for web and that it was going to be episodic. We had vague ideas on when to make episode breaks, one of which remained intact (end of Ep1). One thing that was totally new as a storytelling tool was recaps. They’re a fantastic tool to make sure people who are distracted by something, be it a phone call, a crying baby, or a small fire, can catch up and understand the story. I’d advise any writers for longer content to consider what they’re going to put in their recaps (if they choose to use them) ahead of time, to make sure you have relevant information neatly summed up in one liners.
There were some scenes we needed to cut before the shoot, since we were already stretched very thin and didn’t want JG to look like a soap with too many minutes of content per day. The only one I regret losing is a conversation between Gerard and Sebastian, the two vampire masters – they were actually erstwhile friends (using the term loosely!), though you can’t really tell that. Since most web content will be shot on limited budgets, I think it’s important to have an honest discussion between the writer, director and producer and cut out any scenes you think aren’t needed before you waste time and resources shooting them.
Was writing for the small screen i.e. mobile phone size, an issue? If so, how did you combat this in the writing and in the production?
I remember being shocked – and it was after we shot Judas Goat, not before – when a friend of mine told me he watches films on his phone. Not YouTube videos. Actual films, on his phone, as he’s on the bus. It was inconceivable for me. It’s a lot less now. I’ve still not watched a movie on my phone, but I’ve watched movies and series on a laptop and tablet. To be honest I think it’s more of a directorial issue than a writing one, to make sure the frame isn’t cluttered and the story is conveyed in a clear and meaningful way.
A director friend of mine made a habit of watching foreign language films without subtitles since a well-directed film should be – in his opinion – understandable on a basic level without knowing the language. It’s a good exercise, though questionable as a hard rule – but then again, I like wordy scenes.
Something I can definitely warn people about is score and sound design. Absolutely test it on both a high-end sound system (like the one your sound designer/composer is likely to have) and laptop speakers! We went through two or three drafts for a scene before we realised we simply weren’t hearing the same thing because of the different quality systems. Your audience may very well be watching your story on a phone, so making sure the crucial elements are there is essential.
Were there any unexpected challenges that led to significant changes in the script?
The events in the original script were chronological. The story as written started with Mike and his wife in the flat, before any horrors intrude upon their lives. The problem with that was sudden and unexpected availability conflicts, we’d only have half the time we’d planned for shooting those scenes. So, we cut.
In the end the scene was good, but it wasn’t brilliant. And for an opening scene, that’s a problem, this is where you want to convince someone to spend the next 10 minutes of their life watching your story rather than browse social media. That’s how we got the idea of starting in the middle. In hindsight, I’m really happy we did – it makes for a more compelling story and puts more focus on the main character’s arc.
To be fair I’ve never been on a film shoot where everything went 100% according to the plan, and unfortunately sometimes that means changes to the script. Most writers are aware of that, particularly those who directed themselves. It’s like cutting out lovingly shot scenes in the edit – painful, but ultimately necessary.
How competitive is the web series market and how do you find an audience?
There is obviously a ton of web series out there, and some of it is genuinely brilliant. While it’s easy to get lost in a deluge of content (not to mention the reviewers and let’s players), the web is also a bit more forgiving on the technical scale. An audience on the web is nothing like at the cinema or in front of a TV. They have literally zero mechanisms, social or otherwise, pressuring them to keep watching. They don’t need to get up and leave the room. As soon as they don’t like something, they click it away. Not only that, they are actively encouraged to do it by hundreds of other creators with their own content. And obviously, they’ll keep getting messages and emails too.
On the upside – and I don’t consider myself an expert by any means – the internet is a place for ideas. Especially new and exciting ones. If something’s popular on the internet today, it’ll probably appear on TV in a year or two. There’s a kind of ennui that comes with so much content available for free at your fingertips, and it favours fresh, boldly executed, ideas. You can be as weird, funny, depressing, or political as you like, with no regard for broadcast compliance, and that’s very freeing creatively. Which sounds like a good thing, and usually is.
I honestly believe there’s an audience for everything. It’s just not necessarily a huge audience, but that isn’t always a measure of creative merit. Looking up web series festivals in Melbourne, LA, Berlin and all the other places is a great place to start, particularly since most winners are available to watch for free. You can then look up which blogs/ websites wrote about the series you liked and – once you create your own – get in touch with those.
Marketing your film is kind of a full-time job. Posting about it, engaging fans and haters alike, answering questions, it’s a lot of work that many people underestimate. Writers can be crucial in that, because they’re not only gifted in the words department, they understand the story, the characters and the project and have a personal relationship with it.
This goes double if you’re planning any sort of crowdfunding.
Finally, can you tell us what’s next for Judas Goat and what project you’re working on at the moment?
We’re working on a sequel! I’ve teamed up with a co-writer and we’re finishing the outline. We want to make it feature-length, and since Judas Goat was picked up for distribution by White Wolf, veterans of the vampire genre, we may have a shot. We tried something unusual with our approach to both web content and vampire content, and I think our audience appreciates that. The perspective of vampire servants is absolutely fascinating to me, rife with drama and issues you don’t get to see very often, served with a dollop of horror.
The idea is to continue the story set in the same world, following a different person, but with some of the characters returning. I always envisioned the world of Judas Goat as a series of intertwined layers and you can see it in the series. It’s a very personal story, but there are hints pointing towards something bigger going on behind the scenes.
An award-winning director with a penchant for darkly tinted narratives. Likes the unusual, good pacing and things meaning things. He’s particularly fond of mixing horror up with personal drama, producing intriguing angles at familiar tropes. Pavel’s 45 minute mini-series called Judas Goat, has won over 7 awards (BAFTA Scotland New Talent, Best International Series in Buenos Aires, Best Suspense/Thriller in Melbourne and others) and garnered many more nominations.
With her award-winning company Seventh Crow, Bianca has worked across commercials, documentary, and drama, and produced a variety of award and BAFTA winning content, including short films The Rat King, Sunsets and Silhouettes, No More Shall We Part, and Judas Goat, which is now available to watch on Steam.