RJ Lackie and Stéphane Lachance, two of the forces behind Dorian Gray spoke with netTVnow on their current Phase One journey of IPF. Lachance and Lackie are no strangers to web series. The duo teamed up for Cycle 66's first series, The Soliloquies of Santiago and are currently in the works on Dorian. In addition to Cycle 66's works, Lackie can add writer/creator to KindaTV's Canadian Screen Award-nominated web series, Inhuman Condition, Streamy-nominated series All For One (co-created with Sarah Shelson), with other works seen in Couple-ish, V Morgan is Dead, IRL: The Series and upcoming sci-fi feature film Darken. Check out what else Lacki and Lachance have been up to below the jump and be sure to give their trailer a watch!
netTVnow: Let’s talk Dorian Gray, where did the concept for this series come from?
RJ Lackie: Dorian Gray is actually a kind of modernized sequel to Oscar Wilde’s famous The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the most prominent pieces of ‘queer but not explicitly queer’ literature out there. This was actually one of the things that drew me to it. Queer characters in literature - and projects that explicitly or subtextually queer classic characters - fascinate me. It’s a reminder that LGBTQIA folk have always existed, even if our stories weren’t always safe to tell.
In 2014, it was in vogue to develop vlog-style Literary-Inspired Web series (LIW) concepts to see if another could be a similar flashpoint for the genre. Like many of my favourite projects, Dorian Gray started out of a pragmatic question: If I were to pursue an LIW, which public domain works spoke to me? I was particularly interested in finding queer male protagonists to explore, as one of my longstanding pet peeves in web series has been the dearth of queer men in shows not focused around identity or romance, an issue that was even more pronounced a few years ago. I was also interested in seeing whether an LIW could succeed with a queer male lead, particularly a queer man of colour, given the genre’s up-to-then preference for focusing on white, straight protagonists. This is how I first developed the concepts for The Soliloquies of Santiago, Cycle 66’s queer LIW modernisation of Othello, and the seed that would turn into Dorian Gray.
Stéphane Lachance: In 2015, I approached RJ about producing a web series, as I was interested in making one as part of the final project for my Master’s degree. We brought this idea to Adam Tepperman and Gavin Phillips, with whom we’d founded Cycle 66 to pursue a graphic novel project, and with their blessing Santiago became Cycle 66’s first web series project.
RJ: Around the time we were producing The Soliloquies of Santiago, my friend Steph Ouaknine helped launch Carmilla, and we got to see that show turn into a veritable hit. It demonstrated that there was the potential for a web series audience hungry for queer protagonists engaged in supernatural shenanigans. The audience who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just like me, who wanted to see creators take what that show started and make it more diverse, more progressive, and more, well, gay. Around the same time we saw fandom build on canon by exploring the untapped potential of subtextual queer m/m pairings in shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf. We realised that Dorian Gray, which we had already begun early development on, might be able to do for queer male audiences (like myself) what that show offered queer women: an exciting, badass show with a canon gay couple at its centre.
SL: So after we completed Santiago, realizing the limitations of self-funding, we decided to pitch Dorian to the Cogeco Fund’s all-new Development Program for Digital Drama Series. They offer funding to develop scripts, a series bible, a proof-of-concept video and other materials. They accepted us and thus, we were able to make our trailer.
NTN: And in short, how would you describe the series to those who haven’t seen your trailer?
RJ: Dorian Gray is a visually- and tonally-ambitious queer supernatural drama, full of action and sexuality. At its core, it is the story of two broken souls who find themselves entangled with one another: Heath, an artist who saw a hint of another world and was shattered by that glimpse of the unnatural sublime; and Dorian, an immortal hedonist who, in seeing how empty his search for greater and greater pleasure became, has turned into a bitter recluse hunting for the secret that will allow him to die. The two become bound together when Heath’s search to reconnect with the supernatural stirs up the attentions of Johanna Vane, Dorian’s most dangerous enemy… and as they work to fight a common foe, they realise their new bond runs deeper than either ever expected.
It is, in short, Buffy with a touch of the Gothic influences of Penny Dreadful, made for a generation who’s ready for the very queerness Wilde was forced to keep subtextual in the original novel.
NTN: What are your roles for the series?
SL: I’ll be producing the series alongside Adam and Gavin.
RJ: I’ll be acting as showrunner, helping my Cycle 66 partners oversee a talented group of cast, crew, and writers. Our key creative team also includes All For One director Shannon Litt, who directed our trailer and will return for the series, and Carmilla’s Ellen Simpson as story editor and writer.
NTN: I know you guys went through the IPF cycle last year and I’m so glad to see that Cycle 66 is doing it again, have you done anything differently this time around, if so what?
SL: The big change, production-wise, is that we’ve partnered with REVRY, an LGBTQ-focused streaming service, to produce the series. Over the last year, and during the last IPF cycle, we were looking for a distribution partner for Dorian Gray. REVRY approached us in August after having seen the trailer and we started working with them, first by making The Soliloquies of Santiago available on their service. They’re such a great match for the project and we feel that their involvement will definitely help us make Dorian Gray a reality.
RJ: We’ve also taken the opportunity to revamp our creative in subtle but hugely important ways. By embracing the rich heart of darkness from Wilde’s original novel, and the themes of morality, sexuality, and aestheticism from the world Wilde built, we found that the show’s creative really started to shine. Part of this was in how we thought about format: originally, we saw the show as a vlog/traditional hybrid optimised for a long-tail 20+-episode YouTube run. By dropping the vlog elements and focusing on shorter seasons where we could spend the money making the show as visually and thematically rich as possible, it shifted the tone away from an earnest hero’s journey and allowed us to find the poetry and dark humour we’d always wanted to explore. This led to some adjustments in how we approached the character of Heath, who - rather than the innocent-yet-heroic protagonist you find in many conventional tales - is now a more lost, complex POV character who connects with Dorian on a much deeper level. And we’ve found that REVRY is an amazing partner in allowing the show to own its mature elements, rather than shying away from them.
NTN: Since we're on the subject of Cycle 66 and REVRY, what is REVRY and what can folks expect with that partnership?
SL: REVRY is a paid streaming service based out of LA that offers LGBTQ content, which has recently launched their first original series Gayborhood. The series would be a REVRY Original, which means that digitally, it would be available exclusively through their service. In terms of partnership, they will guide Cycle 66 through the development of the series and offer us significant support with the crowdfunding campaign we will be launching if the IPF selects us for funding. They’ll also be promoting the series and the campaign. They’ve been invaluable in guiding us up until now and I don’t expect that to change.
NTN: Can you talk about the importance of having an organization like IPF?
SL: They are unquestionably important to webseries creators and, by extension, Canada’s media industry. During my Master’s, I did some research into web series monetization and funding and got the chance to ask questions to web series producers and creators. While many of them have been finding great ways to monetize their series, the notion of being full-on profitable is still elusive. And that’s a shame because the webseries space offers the chance for new voices to crop up and for new creatives to hone their skills.
RJ: The fact that the Fund is willing to take chances like it does means that Canada is developing a passionate core of experienced web series talent, from writers to cast to crew, who know the field and are discovering what works and what doesn’t. I hear from people all the time, how strong the web series coming out of Canada are, and I think the IPF - and its sister fund the Cogeco Fund - are a big part of that. If not for the Cogeco Fund, we would not have had the resources to produce our trailer for Dorian Gray, which has been a game-changer for us as a company in terms of visibility and industry respect.
NTN: Can you talk about the IPF submission process and what that’s been like?
RJ: The IPF process has been a trial by fire for our young company. It’s really tested our skills, especially going to Phase Two last year and demonstrating our abilities as producers: budgeting, audience engagement strategies, building producible creative. It’s a massive - and massively valuable - undertaking, which is why I appreciate that the IPF has asked first-time applicants to include a mentor in submissions as of this year. It really is a reminder that you can’t just love your project: you need to be able to make others believe in it, and that requires a whole lot of numbers and figures. It’s really cool to be returning to the IPF process with more experience and, in the form of REVRY, more support from a platform that is as excited about the project as we are.
NTN: Back to the series, what creative differences will you be taking with this series that differ from the original literary adaptation?
RJ: The main two changes from our approach last year both come down to prioritizing quality over quantity: reducing our episode count to maximise our budget-per-minute, and dropping the vlog-style elements from the show. While we adore the LIW genre and think it works fantastically for some stories, for us, stepping away from vlogging as a stylistic choice unexpectedly opened up a ton of creative opportunities that kind of took us by surprise. Tonally, it allowed us to commit to a darker, stranger vision for the show - and a more complex, less earnest vision of Heath at its centre. Once we reworked Heath as a lost, damaged soul with real stakes involved in his search for Dorian and the ‘other world’, the rest of the show - including the show’s supporting cast, tone, and sense of humour - snapped into place like it was meant to be from day one.
NTN: What are you most excited for audiences to see from the series?
RJ: There are so many things, honestly. This is the series I’ve craved for years: supernatural, fun, dark, with characters standing on the very edge of another world they don’t completely understand. Huge, powerful emotions. An examination of what it means to connect with that part of the world that is so beautiful that it can destroy you, which ties so interestingly into a lot of Wilde’s thoughts on aestheticism and the value of beauty. And a queer romance at the centre of it! Between two strong-willed, interesting men whose bond is genuinely powerful. I know why fans read Destiel and Sterek fanfiction because I do too - we crave a gay romance that has that much chemistry and potency at the centre of a show like this, not just subtext. Just generally, I want to show that you can make a show with queer men at its heart that is fun, badass, and moving without forcing queer audiences to only see themselves at the sidelines. It’s something I’ve always wanted to see on TV, I’m so excited to be able to bring this to life.
SL: Just as a producer, I can’t wait for folks to see what we can do with more resources. We’ve already worked with great casts and crews on Santiago and the Dorian Gray trailer. We’ll be upping our game for this series, and that is exciting in and of itself.
RJ: Also: fight sequences! Our villain Vane, who is terrifying and fascinating and strangely sympathetic - and so, so fun to write. Our ensemble cast of supporting players, who I think will be a ton of fun to see build a rapport. While we loved producing Santiago - like Stéphane says - it is such a great opportunity to try new, bigger things. Things not shot entirely in my apartment.
NTN: Where do you hope the web series community will be in the next 5 years?
SL: In terms of making web series, I hope there are more opportunities and avenues for them to become profitable. More distributors, more buyers and more sponsors. If more creators can make money making these series, and even better, make a living doing it, there’s going to be more great shows for everyone to enjoy.
RJ: This might be a pipe dream - particularly for only five years down the line - but I’d love to reach the point where making a web series is primarily a creative choice rather than a choice coming down to resources. While I think that, as long as the form exists it offers a chance for emerging teams to show what they can do on a microbudget, I’m also really looking forward to the day when a creator or producer will be able to look at TV and web series as equally valid forms and select the one that’s creatively best for the project. Once upon a time, TV was seen as an inherently lesser art form, and I think that’s where web series are right now. If we can crack the profitability question, with all the inventive and interesting creators developing in the space, maybe reaching that point in five years is more possible than any of us realize.
NTN: Any upcoming projects that you guys can share? Or anything else to add?
RJ: Obviously, as a super-indie company, we don’t have a massive development budget for new projects, and our primary focus right now is getting Dorian Gray made. But we’re also constantly developing new concepts - for digital and beyond. We’re really excited about the opportunities for low-budget creative innovation in the podcasting space, which is one area we’re actively developing projects in. In terms of digital series, we’re exploring funding options for two really cool projects: an action-oriented queer supernatural drama with a focus on immersive worldbuilding called Dead City Blues, and an interactive sci-fi series focused on questions of AI and personhood called Beautiful Max.
SL: As for Dorian Gray specifically, we’re hard at work preparing for Phase Two, ahead of the IPF’s shortlist. We want to get ahead of everything so that we’re able to receive funding from the IPF. They typically contribute most but not all of a series’ funding, so we’re going to need fans of supernatural and queer series to get the word out to the world, so we can make sure this series gets made - and gets made right. If selected, we’ll be launching a crowdfunding campaign to secure the last portion of our budget.
RJ: And, if you guys get really excited and help us go above and beyond our ask, well, we’re still writing the scripts, but let’s just say we’ll make every single dollar count. We want to make a show so awesome it redefines what people think webseries can be: sexy, fun, dark, and honestly, better than TV. If we get the chance.