In an exclusive interview, Flickering Myth’s Tony Black sat down with his old friend RJ Lackie, series creator and writer of web series Inhuman Condition we recently featured, and fellow producer Steph Ouaknine, to talk how the production came to be, and the future of web series development…
Obvious first question, but where did the idea for Inhuman Condition come from?
RJ: It started out in a shockingly pragmatic fashion: Budget concerns. Four years ago, when I was in university, I was preparing for my fourth-year major project (for which we choose between writing or production), and I was considering production. I knew, either way, I wanted to do a dramatic web series. I knew that, on a microbudget, my biggest selling point would be giving great actors room for strong performances, much like HBO’s In Treatment. At the time I was also a huge fan of Supernatural, which had developed a strong online fanbase. One of my favourite series of all-time is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I really admired how it used the supernatural to explore real life issues, so I decided I wanted to attempt that. Pretty soon into my first brainstorming session, Clara’s story came to me, and it all rolled out from there. Soon after, I decided to choose the writing stream for my major project, wrote a full season of Inhuman Condition and, in summer 2012, pitch the show to Smokebomb. The rest, as they say, is history.
Michelle is a strong protagonist – was she always the prism to frame this world through? Was the one-set angle always the approach?
RJ: When developing the show, I immediately knew the concept demanded a fascinating, complex therapist at the heart of it. And honestly I was fascinated by that dynamic: exploring patients through careful questions, gently feeling out their buried fears and carefully helping them towards key realizations. So I knew Kessler would be the beating heart – and sharp mind – of the show. As for keeping things to one set, that was a creative instinct from when I was first developing the idea as something I could produce on my own – and, as the show moved to Smokebomb and scaled up, that allowed us to focus our money on amazing actors and maximising our episode count, which I’m so pleased about.
Steph: When you have limited resources, you have to really think about how to allocate your budget, but also what’s best for creative. With 5 days to shoot 200+ pages, we didn’t want to entertain any unit moves. All the sets are within or right outside the same studio. The beauty of the concept is its simplicity: you understand why we’re in Kessler’s office, and why we don’t need to be anywhere else for the most part. The camera language did change in prep and on set, as we were initially going to cover each scene with only one roving continuous shot. Thankfully, we saw that we needed two cameras running simultaneously to give us the luxury of coverage and shaping the scenes in post.
It has a diverse cast playing these roles – given you’re covering themes of humanity, was that an intention?
RJ: Definitely. The more we developed the world of the show, the clearer the central themes of marginalization and oppression became. It would be dishonest to explore a world like the one we’ve build and not acknowledge, and critique, oppression across a number of axes. So it was absolutely our intention to cast diversely and to have an open dialogue with our cast about how that would intersect with their characters.
Steph: I address this directly on the Inhuman Condition Tumblr as a matter of fact.
How easy was the series to shoot? Did you shoot in one block? Chronologically?
Steph: Let’s just say it’s acting Olympics to cover almost 40 pages a day! We try to shoot as chronologically as the boards allow us to do. Thankfully we have some wicked, wicked experienced thespians who took on the challenge with gusto and brought their characters to life. Fun facts: Robin Dunne (Graham) and arrived on set at 8 AM straight from the airport. Torri [Higginson] had just finished shooting CBC’s This Life where she plays the lead character. At the same time as shooting Inhuman Condition, she was knee-deep in rehearsal for Paul Gross’s Canadian stage play.
Signing up a recognized actress like Torri Higginson is a coup – how far down the process did she come on board?
Steph: I toured a one-woman show with Torri two years ago, and – as she likes to say – I always bring her compelling yet terrifying projects and convince her to come on board. I’m so glad she accepted to join our show and I’m always thrilled & honoured to work with her. She’s a wonderfully evocative, authentic and compelling actor. Full of heart, vulnerability and strength at the same time, which I’m sure you can agree with!
As someone who has come up through the web series world, where do you see the medium going next? And what are your own aspirations going forward?
RJ: I started writing in dramatic webseries format – as practice on my own, with no real ability to produce anything – in 2008, when everything was still called “webisodes” and cell phone-exclusive “mobisodes” were the next big thing, see: Lost‘s Missing Pieces, distributed through Verizon phones and ABC’s website. Watching the webseries space evolve since then has been shocking and amazing. Seeing microbudget players start to build portfolios and careers; seeing companies like Smokebomb and funding agencies like the Independent Production Fund pop up and flourish. I feel like – not to get too inside baseball – we need to crack the code of monetization, so that web series players can actually build careers off the format. Advertising, sponsors, merchandise, a magical mix of the three or something completely new… I don’t know what it is, but we need it. The form is capable of things TV and film aren’t, creatively. When the web series format can be as self-sustaining as TV or film, I think we’ll see a massive evolution in the artistry and professionalism of even the super-indies in our little industry. We’ve already started to see that process and I couldn’t be happier.
Steph: “Web series world” is relatively vague. We’re always going to see the divide between ultra-indie and professional web series, just like the divide between lower-tier professional ones and studio efforts. The big issue is still discoverability without ad buy, and resources for outreach. If you build it, they will not come. I’m personally excited to see future series integrate live segments, stories that are naturally a fit for 360 degrees, and more long-tail web series exceeding 30 episodes.
RJ: As for my own aspirations… I want to do it all. I want to keep making web series, because I love working in this format, but I’m also excited to do more work in film and TV. In web series you’re usually working alone – or max with a story editor or one or two other writers – so I’d love to work on a TV staff, in the trenches with a whole team. Long-term, I want to showrun, I want to produce. I’m terrified of directing but I want to give that a shot. I’m hungry to experience it all. Life’s too short not to. And too long to spend it doing something you don’t love.
Lastly, how many episodes of Inhuman Condition can we expect? And will there be more?
Steph: 33 episodes. One can hope there will be more!
RJ: If we get the opportunity to make more, I have plenty of ideas for where to take the show from here. We’ll see!
Many thanks to RJ & Steph for their time, and to Shaftesbury/Smokebomb.