Hazel Jeffs | Away From It All

A recent English graduate with a passion for web series, Hazel Jeffs is excited to have brought to life her modern take of Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy in her web series, Away From It All (AFitA). Learn more about the series below!

netTVnow: Can you share with readers a quick synopsis of the series how you’ve turned it into a modern web series?

Hazel Jeffs: In Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene is an orphaned milkmaid who inherits her uncle’s large farm and fortune. The novel focuses on Gabriel Oak (Bathsheba’s unfortunate shepherd who once proposed to her before her change of fortune) and his enduring love for her as she attempts to run the farm as a single woman and navigates the attentions of the local gentlemen, with tragic consequences. 

Our modernized version sees Ellie Bathsheba Everdene (Deborah Couch) as a 21 year-old waitress who turns away from her sad home life, and the attentions of vet student Gabriel (Edward Gist), for a new start as the colourful landlady of a village pub. Her companion of the novel, Liddy (Anna Lloyd), is now an amateur vlogger who records the interesting newcomer’s attempts to win over the village and encourages her romantic life, unaware that the pub’s new waiter knows Bathsheba of old. The story is primarily seen through the private videos and multimedia content stored on Bathsheba and Gabriel’s phones as well as Liddy’s in-world vlogs.

netTVnow: Your series prides itself on having broken the mold of traditional literary web series, what were the key differentiators?

HJ: Back in it’s earliest conception, Away from it All was going to be a fairly low-key literary New Media project where the story would just be told through social media accounts and the texts, notes, images and maybe a couple of videos on the two protagonists’ phones with a big focus on the way characters presented themselves to different people and audiences as opposed to who they were in their private lives, we ended up diverging from that a lot in development, especially with the addition of Liddy’s vlogs, which brought us back into more established LIW territory, but I think you can still see the roots of it in how we still use the phones and transmedia as a whole. Other literary series such as Rex, The Misselthwaite Archives and Serena Berg have used “out of world” videos, but I think our framing for them is unique and it negates a lot of the “why would you post this/why hasn’t every character seen this” angst that a lot of other series have to negotiate. 

It’s not necessarily a unique thing but, as someone for whom watching and discussing every Literary Web series I could get my hands on has been a large and joyful part of my life for the last four years leading a writing team of LIW fans and creators, I think we were very conscious of the tropes used again and again in other series. A lot of these (“The Tour Video”, “cut before the kiss”, “Ooops I left that camera on and recorded an entire conversation”) we fondly embraced but others we had fun playing with or subverting too. 

I also think, especially on the lower production side of things, a lot of other literary web series tend more towards the comedy side of dramedy, and we definitely go the other way and also try to connect the story to an exterior physical landscape in a way that not a lot of vlog-style shows since The Autobiography of Jane Eyre have done.

netTVnow: What was the creative process like for you? Do you think the process is easier or harder knowing that there is a literary piece to refer to?

HJ: Oh I love going through the creative process so much. This was an especially weird one though. AFitA started off as a theoretical concept for me to base my final year university dissertation (Mostly about new media audience interaction) around and I had to write a few example scenes and transmedia pieces as part of that, but then I found myself spending that entire university year writing completely unnecessary 20-page character docs and stressing over every part of the potential plot and setting up tumblrs for the protagonists, all the while remaining absolutely certain and telling everyone who would listen that I’d never actually make or write it. 

I handed in that project, relaxed for literally 2 days before realizing that: 1. I cared too much about the story to not make it, even if I had no idea how. And 2. Because of a job I had lined up, if I was going to make it it HAD to be finished shooting by the end of that summer. So then I got a writing team together and we went through group development of the characters, plot etc over 3 weeks, then wrote and edited all 50 episodes in a month while I also sorted out cast, crew and locations and then we filmed the whole thing in less than 3 weeks. So it was a year of me turning it over in my head and then less than 3 very intense months of a whole gang of us doing everything for it.

In terms of source text, I definitely find it a lot easier to have that jumping off point, it’s tricky sometimes when you get stuck on being faithful to certain aspects of the book or thinking how potential audiences will react to how you’ve adapted things, but equally writing from scratch can be really intimidating so I find the former problems a lot more manageable. I’ve always been utterly fascinated with adaptations anyway and, especially in development meetings with the team, the process of creating AFitA also felt like a really self-aware process of literary criticism and as a recent English Graduate I am deeply into that, especially when it’s a complicated book like Far From the Madding Crowd where there’s so much to say. 

netTVnow: What was your favorite part about seeing the series come to life?

HJ: In every series I’ve been a part of so far, the initial development meetings/written discussion have been my favourite part of the whole thing, there’s always so much energy and so many off-the-wall ideas and in-jokes bouncing around as well as getting to be a huge geek about books and character arcs, it’s a huge amount of fun.

In terms of specifically bringing it to life, the few days where we were shooting almost all the big group scenes and had a crew of four whole people for once were so busy but had a lot of life in them. Those were the days we all hung out the most after each day’s wrap too so that was lovely. The day we went out to film most of the outside episodes (including the first one) was amazing too, Woodbury Common is always beautiful but it really pulled out all the stops for us with that sunset and we could not get over it.

netTVnow: What were some of the particularly hard things you had to deal with as showrunner?

HJ: I think it’s a truth fairly universally acknowledged that pre-production is the worst and I did a lot of that on my own. Learning about the equipment needed and how to find cast and crew for the first time and then instantly having to do that and do all the scheduling on top of writing all of my episodes and helping to edit every episode script made for an interesting few weeks.

The scariest moment was probably when our initial choice for Gabriel dropped out and we still hadn’t re-cast someone on our third day of shooting when we needed him on the fifth! Luckily our cast and crew were amazing with putting the word out for that, we eventually found Ed because he went to school with both of our cinematographers. 

netTVnow: Can you talk about the transmedia aspect of the series and how that played a role?

HJ: The series plays out in real time and all of our characters have Twitters and some have Tumblrs, Instagrams, Pinterests etc. We also have a website that updates a few times a week showing the some of the contents of Bathsheba and Gabriel’s smartphones that week, including text messages, private notes, google searches and playlists. You can also find all of this together with the videos on our Storify account.

The novel flips between quite a few different points of view and all of the main characters have secrets and interior lives that they wouldn’t share on public social media, but I still wanted to find a way to show them. 

I think a lot of our audience just follows the videos on YouTube and maybe a couple of Twitter accounts and I think you can definitely access the main story fairly smoothly that way, with a couple of exceptions that we heavily highlight in the videos, but all the rest of the transmedia just adds more depth and nuance. 

netTVnow: Is this your first work in the web series community?

HJ: Not quite, I was a development assistant and wrote 2.5 episodes and some multimedia pieces for The Misselthwaite Archives. I’d been involved with the very early development of Pencil Ink’s upcoming series The Cloisterham Case Files before we began proper work on AFitA too. I’m still working on that with them, as well as being a writer on a new series called Maggie Hale’s Corner and another developing series created by one of the AFitA writers. 

netTVnow: What are some of your favorite web series?

HJ: My all-time favourite web series is The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, with The Candlewaster’s Nothing Much to Do and Lovely Little Losers as close runners up along with Betwixt Production’s The Writing Majors. I just love vlog-style literary series that feel like the characters are inviting you into their warm, messy lives as a friend and equal.

Outside the literary sphere, I really like Wavejacked, The Vault and Couple-ish.

netTVnow: What do you love most about the web series community and what advice would you give those looking to get more involved in the industry?

HJ: I know a lot more about the literary web series community than the wider web series community and I think those are very different places. The Literary web series community is quite possibly a relatively temporary space but it’s a crossroads of a lot of my favourite things in the world: pretty much everyone who’s excited about classic lit, new media and giving voice to young, frequently queer, women is a potential friend in my book, so that entire community just feels like home for me.

The wider web series community is a lot more varied, has more solid links to filmmaking as a general and I think tends to take itself a little more seriously. In both places there’s so much innovation going on in transmedia, format and audience interaction, so many chances to tell narratives that would get silenced anywhere else and so many creators are just fascinating and will talk to you on completely equal grounds, we’re on the cutting edge of storytelling here and I love it. 

To get involved I would just say talk to people mostly, the community’s super active on Twitter and interested in opinions coming from everywhere. And just make things with whatever time and resources you have, it doesn’t have to be a lot, and see what happens. 

netTVnow: Awesome! Lastly, do you have any upcoming Projects to share or anything else you'd like to add?

HJ: Nothing immediate for me but I’m part of the team for Maggie Hale’s Corner and The Cloisterham Case Files, so look out for them some time in the future!

Lastly, I'd like to give a quick shout out to the amazing things other people in the AFitA family are doing, one of our lovely writers, Anya Steiner has her new web series The Merry Maidens coming soon and the infamously productive Jules Pigott is soon releasing her fourth series, The Emma Agenda.

Follow Hazel Jeffs

Follow Away From It All
Facebook | Instagram | TumblrTwitter | YouTube