British husband and wife duo Matt Thomas (writer) and Susan Allen (director) each make up one half of independent production company, Something Pretty. They’ve just released their debut show on YouTube – the new original web series, Katie & Shaun and we've got the scoop below!
netTVnow: Where did the concept of Katie & Shaun come from?
Matt Thomas: I wrote the piece last year, after reflecting on my own experience with anxiety and depression, and what it means to be mentally well. Most representations of mental disorders out there didn’t really ring true for me, so I wanted to explore how parts of my own experience might play out onscreen.
It all started with the image of the waiting room. I see a therapist who shares an office space with other therapists and I would see the same other patients each week in the waiting room. We smiled and nodded but I never spoke to them. It occurred to me that since people are in a vulnerable place before and after therapy sessions, it would be a really weird space to meet someone you ended up dating, as Katie and Shaun do.
NTN: After that initial idea, what were the next steps to help get things moving?
Susan Allen: It was all pretty fast. After Matt wrote the script, we reviewed it together, and he made a couple edits – mainly to give the characters a little more dimension, and help the overall story arc. As soon as we had 90%-ready scripts we scheduled auditions, cast people, and hired a crew within a couple weeks. We thought that if people were relying on us, we'd be less likely to back out! Plus, the momentum of a creative team meant that solutions started falling into place for the many challenges ahead.
NTN: How long was the writing process and what would you say is different about writing for
web series versus other mediums?
MT: Very quick, easily the quickest thing I've ever written. I'd been 'researching' anxiety and depression my whole life so it wasn't hard to put myself in that headspace of the characters. Shaun was a challenge to write initially as it's hard to write an authentically depressed character who's still visually interesting - in my experience, there tends to be a lot of lying on the couch and sleeping. However, as soon as we came up with the idea of Bob as a character (Shaun’s inner critic or depression), it became a lot easier and a LOT more fun to write.
When writing for a web series, you're very aware of every decision you make on the page having consequences for time, money and effort in production – especially if it's your money, time and effort. This is why most web series are about two people sitting in an apartment. We really didn't want to make one of those – and in production Susan was ruthless about achieving authenticity through locations and extras – but also there's practicality to consider. I had to constantly ask myself things like 'do we really need that extra location?' and on the other hand 'Did you cut that exterior night scene because you just didn't want to shoot it, or is it really redundant to the story?'
NTN: What would you say is different about directing web series versus other mediums, I’ve
heard various things that it’s quite similar to directing theater!
SA: I’ve directed theater previously, but never for film or indeed, a web series, so it was definitely a challenge. Obviously, a camera frame is more focused than a theater stage – you can control where viewers look – so in some respects you do more with less. A twitch of the eyebrows can say enough! At the same time, theater audiences are a little more forgiving in terms of suspending their disbelief. With a realistic film, you have to ensure that your set’s detail and continuity is on point just to create a believable world. Last thing you want are viewers getting distracted by an oddly empty bar, or a microphone left in shot.
For Katie & Shaun, I didn’t want to run out of options or lose the spark before the camera started rolling, so we rehearsed a little, but not too much. Saving some choices to play with on the day, meant we were able to capture that magic on camera. And many moments really are magic. I couldn’t be more proud of our cast and their performances.
NTN: As a husband and wife duo, what was it like collaborating? Was this a first?
SA: Yes, this is a first. And we survived! Communication is the main thing. We took the time to clearly define roles from the start. Matt didn’t interfere with the directing, and I didn’t change the script – though we both offered each other constructive criticism. Don’t get me wrong. There were definitely tense moments! But when we disagreed, we took a deep breath and asked, what’s going to make this a better experience for viewers? Ten years of knowing how the other thinks meant when one of us was down a rabbit hole and a little lost, the other knew how to help put things into perspective.
NTN: Have either of you worked on a web series before? If not, what were some of your initial
MT: Nope, and that's probably a good thing as we might not have done it if we'd known how how much we were taking on! Our worries all boiled down to not wanting to make something that looked amateur. Twenty years ago people would tolerate something like Clerks that was a little shoddily produced if the story was good, but now they see so much professionally made content that something like bad lighting or sound will take people out of the experience quickly. We knew we had a good story and we wanted to give it the chance to shine without it being hamstrung by bad production values.
NTN: Susan, what were some of the inspirations you pulled from in creating Katie and Shaun?
SA: In pre-production, I worked closely with our Production Designer, Kimberly Gim, to gather inspiration for the look and feel of Katie & Shaun. We wanted to create a sense of human connection despite an underlying loneliness and struggle. We were drawn to the simultaneous grit and warmth of Girls, and how the city of New York features in the show. That was definitely an influence for the opening shots of each character.
We also looked at Mr. Robot for ideas about how to shoot an imaginary character (Bob). That being said, I made a conscious effort to pull away from trippy and jarring camera techniques i.e. those where Christian Slater’s character (Mr. Robot) is there one minute and suddenly gone the next. We chose to keep our transitions simple because Bob is a different sort of non-real. Whereas Mr. Robot is a disorienting “voice” of Elliot’s multiple personality disorder, Bob is Shaun’s ever-present depression, a feeling physicalized in a character. Sometimes Bob’s influence is strong, but Shaun never actually thinks he’s talking to another real person. We also drew on inspiration from our own lives. Many of the cast and crew have personal experience with anxiety and depression, so it helped us get creative. For instance, in episode 3, we spent a long time trying to capture the simultaneous deep rumble and odd high-pitched noise you might hear if your were having a panic attack.
NTN: How would you describe the main characters?
SA: Katie is a smart 32-year-old woman, who’s trying to find her way. She’s struggling with anxiety and OCD, and is ultimately pretty lonely. Katie is a “fixer” – someone who likes to be in control and solve things. She’s always rushing around, and channeling that mental energy into “getting things done.” She’s also a people pleaser with fairly low self-esteem. She wants to present a version of herself to the world of having her life together, so it becomes this multi-layered thing where she’s struggling mentally but compensating for it, for fear of being judged.
Throughout the show, we show that tendency to smooth things over – when she organizes her shelves to cure insomnia, the metaphor of icing a hastily baked cake to apologize for literally smoothing over her disturbance of Jane in episode 1, and her recounting of her panic attack to Dr. Reynolds as if it’s all quite laughable.
Shaun is a late twenty-something year old guy, who’s in a job he doesn’t particularly like, and suffers from depression. Like Katie, he’s lonely and doesn’t like himself much. Deep down, he’s looking for connection but there’s a fear there – that he isn’t good enough. In many ways, he’s comfortable in the known quantity that is his depression. Telling himself that he’s worthless, or not liked, and better off staying at home alone brings him a kind of comfort – it allows him to escape the fear of rejection. We see Shaun escaping in various ways – whether it’s through listening to music in his headphones, watching TV, or alcohol and weed.
NTN: What do you hope audiences will take away from the series?
MT: First and foremost it's a piece of entertainment so I hope they enjoy watching it but if someone recognised their own experience in the series and maybe felt a little less alone, that'd be great.
SA: I hope the show will go some way to busting some stigma, and getting people to talk about what might feel uncomfortable. It can be hard to start up a conversation around mental illness, and it would be great if Katie & Shaun made that easier. We want to show the characters’ struggles with anxiety and depression as just one part of who they are. Not freakish or weird, or something to be afraid of. Just an aspect of human experience.
NTN: Do you have any upcoming projects or anything else you’d like to add?
MT: We're talking about some potential projects but nothing concrete just yet. I want to make
a feature and Susan wants to make a short film. So I guess we'll see!
Follow Susan Allen on Twitter
Follow Matt Thomas on Twitter