Whale Creator Marco North on Working Way Outside the Box
This is the first part in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Marco North who created, wrote and shot Whale, a sci-fi episodic narrative with a different take on the ‘webseries’ genre. I offered Marco to share with us his experience on his journey to make and release Whale :
WHALE – Working Way Outside the Box (part 1)
A few months ago, I began shooting Whale, an episodic narrative, more visual novel than anything else, taking inspiration from the rigorous storytelling aesthetic of The Wire. I live in Moscow, Russia as the result of a complex set of family events (my daughter cannot leave the country). Many elements of Whale are lifted directly from our real-life situation, seen through the filter of an alternate dystopian past.
So, I had some fire in the belly, a great young actress, a hell of a backstory, incredible locations and a free C300 package from Canon. I had a script that my toughest critics could not find fault with. They simply told me, “Shoot this. Shoot this right now.” [pullquote]there is something electrifying about working truly independently – way off the traditional path.[/pullquote]
The decision about how to tell the ambitious, unorthodox story of Whale and how to produce it was one simultaneous, unified thought. It would be created in a vacuum, defined only by itself. Whale would not be formatted or intended for any specific platform (more on that later). I could not imagine developing the concept any other way. Maybe I should blame my East Village punk rock roots for a habit of working up the courage and the energy to make something by saying, “f*ck them all, we’re making this our way”.
I can only say that there is something electrifying about working truly independently – way off the traditional path, following your muse, making sandwiches for the crew before a guerilla shoot in the metro at 5am. We all like to say we are inspired by mavericks like Cassavetes, but how often do we attempt to walk in their shoes?
Here are some frame grabs from our title sequence:
Here is a glimpse at what principle photography was like:
So, things went well. Really well. Twenty something years of working as a DP, of directing everything I could, publishing books, shooting film, shooting digital – it all paid off. Will people understand Whale? I think so. Have they seen anything like it? Yes, absolutely but not recently. Definitely not as an episodic series. Will people enjoy it? I have no idea. But, network executives also have no idea most of the time. You don’t know if you have captured lightning in a bottle until it is finished and people have gone nuts over it or dismissed it. I will not second-guess what sells and does not sell.[pullquote]If I am going to self-finance and self-produce I am going to make it a dream project.[/pullquote]
If I am going to self-finance and self-produce I am going to make it a dream project. I will not burden myself or the audience with the familiar. They can get that from most micro-budget-carbon-copy-stale-genre-concept-web-series. I will just tell the best story I can, in the smartest way. In the process I will look for the surprises, the epiphany. If the actress wants to cry in the last scene, let her cry. If the 1972 Volga breaks down, shoot that too. If the music is too scary, or too quiet or too sad, it probably is fine just the way it is.
Face it. The wide-open, “free” Internet is the playground of new creators. YouTube and countless “how to make your film” sites cater to people that are starting out. I think that is fantastic. At the same time, as a mid-career artist I find myself in an ever-dwindling position. I don’t need to learn how to make a light saber effect to tell my stories. I don’t need to learn about what shot coverage is, or how to light with a china lantern. (Hell, I have taught that myself.)
In today’s world if you are well known like Louis C.K. you can easily self-distribute. Otherwise, the experienced but unknown artist needs to crowdsource and throw their work on the top of the pile at vhx.com (or the newer, better vhx.com alternative that will launch next week). Being a new creator is as easy as it will ever be. Becoming a paid professional takes experience, luck, talent and commitment. How to become a paid creator of original content is just short of a mystery. We all read the success stories, but how to coordinate our own alignment of planets? It happens with the lights off, fumbling in the dark as far as I can tell. One of the reasons I am writing these articles is to chart the story of how Whale finds a home.[pullquote]Every single independent producer needs support.[/pullquote]
Every single independent producer needs support. Just because I have been making films and music and photos and books for twenty something years does not exempt me from the challenge of connecting with an audience. I have to promote as wisely as possible. Mentorless.com is a site that does not dumb things down, or cater to any specific experience level. I find that rare and commendable. I even wrote to tell Nathalie this. We fell into a conversation, a real conversation about the pros and cons of creating original content in today’s world.
There are profoundly encouraging examples these days – High Maintenance’s arrangement with Vimeo being the local hero, the “House of Cards” for the independent, self-produced upstarts who know a lot about what they are doing and want to graduate to the position of paid creator.
I avoid saying we are creating a web-series, using “episodic narrative” instead. Sadly, the catch-phrase “web-series” brings up an avalanche of associations, typically a half-baked vanity project. I have to distance our obscure, carefully shot, indescribable brainchild from this, not knowing where or how Whale will be seen. I am keeping every possible distribution option open until doors close on them. Out of sheer force of will and desperation I knew we were capable of something that had enough of the mentality, the look and production value of “real” shows to call it something “else”. To be brutally honest, I did not think past this. I am concentrating on postproduction.
That real-deal producer in LA who actually answers your emails? The one who worked with that famous director? He doesn’t want to talk to you until you have an episode in the can, mixed and finished. They don’t want to look at rough cuts. The only thing to focus on for the immediate future is making a fantastic first episode. Hustling the friend of the friend’s cousin (who hopefully still works at HBO Digital) to give you a few seconds of attention will have to wait.[pullquote]Anyone who has been telling stories for some time has learned to dumb things down, to shoot for the middle, the common denominator, the popular vote. This brings moderate success. This lets you make your next film. I found myself at a point in my life when I need to push past this, to speak directly from my gut without pulling any punches. [/pullquote]
Anyone who has been telling stories for some time has learned to dumb things down, to shoot for the middle, the common denominator, the popular vote. With luck, this brings moderate success. This lets you make your next film. I found myself at a point in my career when I need to push past this, to speak directly from my gut without pulling any punches. I highly recommend taking this risk as a reward in and of itself. Put your money where your mouth is, dig deep, and tell a story completely, unapologetically your way for once and see what happens differently. We all edit ourselves. We are all our own worst enemies.
I may have gone too far, but I also know I have gone far enough from the norm to respect myself. I know this is just the kind of show I personally would love to see, on any screen, for free or paying for it.
Nathalie from Mentorless has invited me to write a few articles about our project, and the steps we take to find a home for Whale. I’ll be completely honest about the curveballs and the letdowns, the triumphs and our decisions as we make them. One of my favorite expressions is “learning to shave on someone else’s face”. That’s a fair description of what you, my fellow filmmaker, are doing if you made it this far.
Visit Whaleseries.com for a deeper look at the project and to subscribe to exclusive updates.
Marco North is a photographer, filmmaker and published author based in Moscow, Russia. His award-winning weekly blog Impressions of an Expat is followed by readers from over 130 countries.
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Mentorless is a blog for indie filmmakers, storytellers & storymakers with a diy spirit to find tips and nurture their craft and creativity. Read more