Alex Moreland chats to Bernard Zeiger and Casey Stein, the team behind Otis, an interactive crime drama…
First of all, could you tell us a little bit about the development of this short – how was it originally conceived?
Our development on this short began about four years ago when we stumbled on an article about a boxer in the American Rust Belt whose life turned to crime and eventually caught up with him. We decided to try to write his story as a feature length film. When we finished it, we hated it. There were so many people playing crucial roles in the way this man’s life turned out who were not getting the attention they needed to tell the full story. After struggling with it for a while, we decided we wanted to get a more holistic view of the events by telling the experiences of multiple characters – all at once.
What were the challenges of making this short?
The biggest technical challenge is making sure everything syncs together properly in the editing room. We use what we call, “fiddle points”, which basically lets us extend the time on one perspective if needed to match another one. Creatively we wanted each perspective to be stylistically distinctive; each one has a different score, sound design, cinematography style, editing technique, etc. We want the events a viewer sees to be different, but we want each character to feel different as well, using classic filmic tools. A final artistic challenge is making sure perspectives are as engaging as possible throughout, although you can channel interest in one perspective by making another less compelling. If there is something we really want the audience to see, we will dial back the intensity in the other perspectives.
On a story level, what’s the best way to exploit the potential of being able to switch perspectives? What sort of stories does this format lend itself to?
This format is especially compelling for stories that are based on characters who have an imbalance of information from one another. Thrillers, horror, even comedy would work well for this. Anything that uses dramatic irony, really. We are the most attracted to crime dramas personally, but we would love to see what other people can do with it!
Given the way it shifts perspectives, were you ever concerned that audiences might miss something important because they were watching the ‘wrong’ perspective?
The goal is to create stories that are compelling enough in their own right so that any given playthrough of an episode feels rewarding. That said, it is built into the design so that people feel like they are missing information on an initial viewing. Otis doesn’t pause when the perspective changes; the story carries on for all three characters. We form opinions on a lack of information, if anything. In real life you don’t get all the answers in front of you. That’s what makes life so exciting and engaging. Whether you realize it or not, we intentionally leave information out of stories and say them in different tones around different people. The short answer is a person never gets the full story so we asked ourselves, how engaging could we make a piece of content if we left information out and let the viewer form their own opinions?
Where would you like to take this project next? What would it look like as a long running TV series?
Our goal is to make an episodic series in this format about the life and death of an American Steel Town in the Rust Belt. We are currently developing an eight episode series in this format, each episode around 10-15 minutes. We think this format lends itself better to relatively short runtimes per episode so people don’t get confused and might want to watch multiple times. We also feel it works best in a mini-series format rather than a long running series, although our plan is to create multiple seasons set in the same town to paint a picture of the way the town changes over time, similar to The Wire. We’re True Detective meets The Wire as an interactive film.
What’s necessary to achieve that aim?
In order to see the series fully produced, we will need to navigate the film industry as anyone else would. Show the project around and get producers, actors, agents and distributors interested in partnering with us. Hubris aside, we’re confident in what we’ve made and we’re really starting to see and feel the potential of this idea. So it’s about finding who are the best people to ensure it takes off.
If you were trying to pitch this format to Netflix, what would be the most important thing to emphasise to them?
If we were to pitch this show to Netflix, we will be sure to emphasize that this format has been designed for a new generation of viewers who want to dig deeper into character and story. The tech is just giving people a tool to explore narrative in a new way, but the success of this project depends entirely on the strength of the story.
Do you think this format has potential beyond the crime drama? Would a romcom work in this format, for example? Why did you choose to focus on a crime drama first and foremost?
This format has potential beyond crime drama, essentially to any genre or story that involves conflict between characters based on an imbalance of information. A rom com could work in this format but the emphasis would have to be on the dramatic irony. If two characters are doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing and another character is about to discover them, that’s a great moment for motivating people to switch between perspectives. We were attracted to a crime drama in the Rust Belt because we like intense, exciting stories about people who are usually left out of the Hollywood narrative.
Who are your influences as filmmakers?
Everyone on the team has their own influences, but as a group we are heavily influenced by series’ such as The Sopranos, The Wire and True Detective. That said, we are also influenced by videogames like Her Story, Life is Strange and Spec Ops: The Line. So, David Chase, David Simon and Cary Fukunaga are just as important as Sam Barlow, Jean-Luc Cano and Walt Williams.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Each person on our team took their own path to get into filmmaking, but we were all basically nerds in high school who attended NYU Tisch for college, where we all met and started working together. For one of us it was skateboarding videos, another was silly home movies with the family, another was over the top melodramatic feature length films with friends. But again, the bottom line is that we all have a deep passion for film from our childhoods.
What advice would you have for someone looking to become a filmmaker?
Just do it. Go out, use your phone, use your friends, tell your stories in your voice and get as many people as possible to see them. Rinse and repeat.
What other projects are you working on at the minute?
As a team we are in pre-production on a short in this interactive format, and we are developing a full series. We have a number of side projects as individuals as well. One of us is a full time commercial director, another a professional writer, another a producer at an agency and another runs a streaming video platform.
What would you most like someone to take away from your work?
Our biggest takeaway with this project is about trying to understand a story from more sides. We all make our own choices and it all adds up. But unlike narratives that are based on branching design, we want to emphasize that life only happens one way. We get one shot and whatever happens is the result of many different people’s actions. It’s easy to forget that, especially for marginalized folks whose narratives don’t fit in with the white capitalist patriarchy. Hopefully this format opens the door to understanding that better.